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Flash Interview, 3-13: Ballet's World Traveler
A Conversation with Ethan Stiefel

By Francis Mason
Copyright 2001 Ethan Stiefel and Francis Mason

(Editor's Note: The following originally appeared in the Fall 2001 issue of the esteemed publication Ballet Review. To subscribe to Ballet Review, e-mail: balletreview@mailexcite.com.)

Ballet Review: You are a world traveler now, you go everywhere. What does the world look like to you?

Ethan Stiefel: I must say I never have enough time to explore the various places. Basically I'm seeing the world through theaters or ballet studios. Actually, it's rather like a soap opera sometimes because every place reveals another side of humanity. There are characters and heroes. I've spent a lot of time in London, and there I have a second home. But often in other cities, I have to breeze in and out, try to get something from the people I'm working with, whether it's my partner or a choreographer or a musician, as well as get some kind of experience from the city itself. I try to walk around or take public transportation because those things are key to really knowing the culture. Not only the place itself but also how people act, how they react, what their general mood is, whether when you step on a train it's completely silent or boisterous. And then the tourist sights, too.

Some of the places I've been going I am seeing for the first time. I've been to Moscow quite a few times, but in St. Petersburg recently I was lucky because Igor Zelensky was like a tour guide for me. He drove me around everywhere in the city, which he is very proud of. He knew there is a lot to see there, a lot of values. He said, "This is going to be your time here, and I want you to have an experience."

As far as my work is concerned, I always hope to absorb something from the atmosphere, while also being myself and bringing something to the environment. For example, in St. Petersburg, when I danced "Apollo" my Muses had already danced the ballet at the Kirov, and I don't think we tried to imitate each other's styles, American and Russian. We tried to find a place where what we were doing separately would make sense, while at the same time maintaining our interpretations.

When I go to London, I'm not going to suddenly become a Royal Academy-trained dancer. I have to recognize that but at the same time be sensitive to the company's style. I have to maintain my own style, my persona, but not make the show just about me. Otherwise, I don't get anything out of the experience, and the foreign audience doesn't either. What is most fascinating for me about dancing in new countries is to take something with me from each company.

BR: How did your relationship with the Royal Ballet come about?

ES: The company had lost Tetsuya Kumakawa to Japan, and he had taken five principal men with him. That depleted their ranks, and it just happened that Michael Kaiser had begun working at Covent Garden, and he suggested that I be brought in.

BR: And Anthony Dowell came to know you.

ES: And the rest of the staff as well. They felt comfortable with how I was working, that I would fit in to the company, not just onstage but in the studios and in the classroom. To have worked with Dowell before he left the company has been a great thing. That's when all the traveling to different countries makes total sense. And to think that two years from now I would not have had that chance at the Royal. Working with him has been invaluable, and I am so grateful for the opportunity.

BR: What was he like to work with?

ES: He's truly a gentleman and a class act. When you come into the studio to work with him, he has a great sense of humor. You know you're going to get work accomplished. And he will physically show you. He won't just tell you; he can stand up. It's in his body. It comes to life so quickly that you can't help but take something from what he shows. You can learn a ballet from someone, someone who perhaps knows the notation, you can know the ballet, know the steps, and then Dowell comes in and completely puts air into it and breathes life into the ballet. When you have someone like that in the studio, it is infectious, and it's going to rub off onto other people. He was a great dancer, a unique dancer, so to have touched on things that were created on him is a gift. He was ahead of his time in many areas of dance. Also, he has a noble quality, not just as a dancer but as a person, and he maintains that.

Sometimes I dance in a company where the director has forgotten what it is to be a dancer. So with Dowell it was refreshing to come across someone who does remember. He was director of the Royal Ballet for sixteen years. That's a long time to direct a major international company. He maintained the lineage, and that's a difficult thing in any company that has had a rich past. It was wonderful to deal with someone who takes into consideration what the dancer is going through.

After I had done the de Valois "Coppelia" in my first season with the Royal, Dowell asked me if I had ever done the Ashton "Fille Mal Gardee." I said no. He said, "That would be something that you should do. It would be good for you." So basically that was in the back of both of our minds with the season coming up. He worked with me on "Fille," and so did Alexander Grant, who owns the ballet. When Anthony coached me for "Fille," he got right into the feeling of Colas having a country bumpkin aspect:This very elegant, intelligent man all of a sudden becomes a simpleton from out in the fields. To see that transition happen immediately, basically gave me that quality immediately. And he has things to say about technique as well. He's right on top setting the tone, the right mood.

Also, Anthony allows you to explore for yourself what you're going to do. He says, "This is what I did, but you have to make it work for yourself." He'll make suggestions, but he finally leaves you to your work.

BR: How does today's Royal Ballet feel as an institution?

ES: I came into the Royal Ballet on day one of their moving into their renovated house. It's a big place, and you feel that -- as in any house with both an opera company and a ballet -- they are maintaining their name. And I have to say that I did not sense that there were a lot of noses turned up at the new arrival, you know, "God forbid, an American coming into London, a Yankee coming into the Royal Opera House." No, everyone was very welcoming. You can't help but be nervous. After all, you are coming into someone else's house. But if you go in willing to show respect, they will in turn give respect back. And it seemed to be a really great fit right away. The people at the Royal helped me make the transition. It was really very pleasant.

BR: What will you do in the future?

ES: It's probably time to step into something in the Romantic idiom -- "Giselle," "La Bayadere," and Lensky in "Onegin." I was very flattered that when I initially did "Coppelia." Anthony Russell Roberts, the executive director of the Royal, said, "We knew it was going to work when you took a ballet that was very simple and had some things to offer, that you were going to make something out of it and something happened." That was probably one of the nicest things that I've ever heard from anyone.

BR: You had done the Frederic Franklin version at ABT.

ES: The scenario is similar in the two versions. Franz is not a country bumpkin. You don't have to be a country bumpkin to be led by your lower extremity. Franz loves a doll and a woman, so where is his brain? When you are sixteen or seventeen years old it doesn't take much. So I do not see him as an oaf. But sometimes when you have that eagerness, you lose sight of the reality of a situation. A man can become not as sensitive as the woman would like. Franz is happy-go-lucky, with a certain level of intellect, but he is distracted from the girl next door.

It's actually like Albrecht in "Giselle." Albrecht is going into a new region to try and achieve whatever it is his aspiration is leading him to. And Siegfried in "Swan Lake" has to choose between two female figures, too. There's the question of whether the male in these ballets is capable of deception or was he fooled? Perhaps he knew better but wanted to check it out.

BR: How did the Balanchine repertory at NYCB prepare you for these roles?

ES: The Balanchine repertory prepared me in a musical sense, to make a mime characterization musical.

BR: At City Ballet you danced in "The Sleeping Beauty," "Harlequinade," and "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

ES: And the Robbins repertory prepared me because he was always concerned with the relationship of the people onstage. In the story ballets of the nineteenth century you are maintaining a relationship with whomever else is onstage.

BR: How much of the year will the Royal claim you?

ES: My understanding is that they've said they want me there as much as I can be there.

BR: You will appear with ABT here in New York and then in London with the Royal.

ES: It's a perfect arrangement. I encounter different viewpoints, different repertory.

BR: Do you ever visit your first teachers?

ES: Last summer I visited Jo Jean Retrum in Madison, Wisconsin. She invited me back to do her production of "The Nutcracker," which was the first ballet production I ever danced in.

BR: What did you dance?

ES: Bonbons. Fritz. I did Chinese. The little Prince.

BR: This time?

ES: This time I did the big Prince. So I moved up a little bit. Next year she will do her version of "La Fille Mal Gardee." And I'm still in contact with Paul Sutherland in Milwaukee. He and his wife, Brunilda Ruiz, came last season to see "Swan Lake" and "Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux" at ABT. He basically introduced me to male technique in ballet. He had me doing handstand pushups and back exercises. He showed me his mountain-climbing equipment, which he used to climb Mt. McKinley. But he really opened me up to male technique, partnering. He stressed partnering a lot. He had a trick: walking around chairs and spinning them while maintaining the balance and the spin. You had to find the balance point, to be able to feel the balance. He said something once that has always stayed with me: "The sign of a good partner is that he moves very little. If a partner's feet are always shuffling and moving that means he is not in the right place."

BR: What was his background?

ES: Paul was a Marine, and then he quit the Marines and took up dancing. He danced at Joffrey and ABT for a while. I think that is where he came into contact with Ted Kivitt, who was the director of the Milwaukee Ballet and brought Paul up there.

BR: Did Paul Sutherland have an ideal role model in male dancing?

ES: Erik Bruhn.

BR: Did you see the recent documentary on Bruhn?

ES: Yes, it's great. I've seen the tapes of Bruhn's "Giselle" and the documentary. I'd like to see more of Bruhn's work.

BR: You now do Lensky in the ABT and Royal Eugene Onegins.

ES: Yes. The solo for Lensky in the second act is a wonderful dance. There are not a lot of adagio solos around like that for men. You have to maintain a high degree of control, but at the same time it frees you to release the emotion. Lensky is an interesting character because you have to find the right volume, how he breaks, how he pops his top.

BR: Any areas of the repertory that you'd like to explore?

ES: I'd like to do some Bournonville. I was ill last year, so I missed the chance to do ABT's "La Sylphide." And I'd like to do "Romeo and Juliet" at the Royal.

BR: Do you admire certain of the male dancers at the Royal Ballet?

ES: I respect Johan Kobborg, especially for his taste, his choices in performance. I've seen him in various Bournonville pieces, in some Ashton, some Forsythe, and in "Swan Lake."

BR: You are doing a television show?

ES: PBS is profiling four ABT male dancers: myself, Angel Corella, Jose Carreno, and Vladimir Malakhov. The program shows where we started our training, so you'll see Jo Jean in Madison. I rode my motorcycle back there, so there are some shots of that. Mark Morris has made a pas de quatre for us to a piano quartet by Schumann. We taped it at SUNY-Purchase in August for broadcast this year. I hope that when the American public sees the program they realize that it can be an advantage, rather than a hindrance, to be born in America and study ballet here rather than in one of the foreign schools.

BR: Your recent self-produced gig in Colorado was called . . .

ES: Stiefel and Stars. I wanted the other dancers to feel that it's not just a one-man show. The presenter, Katherine Kersten, in Vail, Colorado, has a festival every year. I've done it two years in a row. I knew her in Milwaukee when I was there. She was head of the ballet school. They had started the festival several years ago, and she asked me if I would like to put together a troupe and come out with the group. I said yes, and it was a lot of work to coordinate everything, pick out a repertory. But it is a great group of people.

BR: Who are they?

ES: Amanda McKerrow, Gillian Murphy, Stella Abrera, Michele Wiles, Marta Rodriguez-Coca, Marcelo Gomes, Sasha Radetsky, and Alejandro Piris-Nino.

BR: What are you doing for repertory?

ES: "Contredances" by Helgi Tomasson. The pas de trois from "Swan Lake," with Sasha, Gillian, and Michele. The pas de deux from Natalie Weir's "Jabula" with Stella and Marcelo. And I'm doing the Tharp solo from "Known by Heart." And then a version of the third act from "The Sleeping Beauty." I've made an opening and closing ensemble dance.

BR: Do you plan to take the dancers out on the road again soon?

ES: The response from the presenters, audience, and critics has been very positive. I'm trying to interest some presenters in Japan. Amanda has spoken to some people there and they seem enthusiastic. And Merrill Brockway in Santa Fe heard about our group and wants us to perform there in a newly renovated theater. Because the show has been produced and has been onstage, I'm open to promoting it; if it were a matter of putting together a new show, I would be less open because the work involved was substantial.

BR: You were out of New York on tour with American Ballet Theatre when the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers occurred. But you found a way to acknowledge the reality of the war onstage.

ES: My response of bringing the American flag onstage during the curtain calls for Paul Taylor's "Black Tuesday" on the tour was induced by the events occurring in the company during the tragic ordeal. Owing to the fact that the opening night of the tour in Kansas City was on the exact day of the terrorist attack, followed by two consecutive eighteen-hour days on a bus from Kansas City to San Diego, as well as beginning our first day in San Diego with a company gathering and a moment of silence, I felt that there had not been an opportunity to absorb the magnitude of the situation. I was not sure that this would be considered truly appropriate, and it was not something I had been planning from the start, but after the response from my co-workers and from the audience, I realized that it had some poignancy.

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