NZ ballet's royal couple

TRACEY COOPER
Last updated 05:00 12/03/2012
New Zealand ballet
KENT BLECHYNDEN/Dominion Post
ROYAL STARS: Ethan Stiefel, artistic director of the Royal New Zealand ballet, and his fiancee and guest principal dancer Gillian Murphy.
New Zealand ballet
MAARTEN HOLL/Dominion Post
ON POINT: Kiwi dance students spent a day being taught by Royal New Zealand Ballet stars, including Ethan Stiefel.

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At 10 past six, Gillian Murphy strolls through the foyer of her Auckland hotel and out into the street. She's wearing a blue top and jeans and has her long red hair tied back.

She takes her time, stopping to look in shop windows, gazing at the city skyline while she waits at the traffic lights and casually moves aside to allow people to pass, just another face in the crowd.

Murphy walks the two blocks to the Civic Theatre, turns right up the hill and heads down the broad concrete pathway to the stage door. Inside, she takes the lift down a level, walks past several big boxes used to store costumes and pushes open the door to her dressing room.

As principal guest artist in the Royal New Zealand Ballet's latest production, NYC, she doesn't have to share the metres of space on the long bench running down one wall, topped by mirrors and lights. It's all for her, as is the small leather couch, coffee table, steel- framed chair and unopened bottle of bubbles left over from the previous evening's opening night.

Murphy has already spent a few hours at the theatre earlier in the day, taking class, rehearsing and stretching in the early afternoon before having lunch, resting up and, if she's lucky, grabbing a quick snooze. But in the hour and 20 minutes before the next performance of the three-part production, she'll limber up, lay out her first costume and, as she says, "get pumped" before going on stage.

First, though, she'll do her own hair and makeup - something of a change for the English-born American dancer.

Murphy, 32, is also the principal ballerina for the New York-based American Ballet Theatre, one of the world's leading classical ballet companies, and is considered by many to be among the very best dancers currently plying their trade.

With the American Ballet Theatre, she says, "principals have their hair and makeup done - about half an hour on each". But the Royal New Zealand Ballet, with just 32 dancers, doesn't have the resources to compete with the American Ballet Theatre, which has almost that number alone in principal dancers and soloists. Not that Murphy minds. It's a small price to pay for dancing with the Royal New Zealand Ballet where, barely six months ago, her fiance, Ethan Stiefel, took on the role of artistic director.

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Stiefel himself is also a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre and is considered among the very best. Together they form what's been called the royal couple of ballet, so highly are they regarded, and it was considered something of a coup when he took on the New Zealand role.

Stiefel has been hunkered down inside the Civic long before Murphy and her fellow dancers arrive in dribs and drabs to prepare for the show. While it's not his first artistic director role - he has been dean of the School of Dance for the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and artistic director of Ballet Pacifica in California - he says he's still settling in and getting to know people.

The youthful-looking 38-year-old isn't due to retire from dancing until he performs in Le Corsaire and Swan Lake at New York's Metropolitan Opera House mid-year, but as artistic director, he has a clear vision to take the Royal New Zealand Ballet to the next level, particularly increasing its profile in his native country.

Simply by taking the job, Stiefel has raised the company's profile already, with the New York Times among a wealth of media outlets giving coverage to his departure from the Big Apple to a small company halfway around the world. Or, as Britain's The Guardian called it, a "highly enterprising company that, despite being based in a small country light years from anywhere, has forged a genuine reputation on the world stage".

If Stiefel achieves what he wants, that reputation will be considerably enhanced during the three years he's signed on for.

Part of what NYC is about is introducing New Zealanders to New York ballet and, as it's his first full production in charge, he's hungry to learn as much as he can about his dancers.

But he acknowledges his presence can be distracting, intimidating even, as both sides get to know each other, so he'll watch the show from somewhere out in the audience rather than from the side of the stage. "Sometimes I'll be in the wings, but because I'm quite new, I don't want to put them off."

He sees his role as developing the company into a genuine world force and helping his dancers develop to their potential but he's still learning about the raw material he's dealing with and says going on tour will be a learning experience for everyone as they cope with lots of travel and theatres of vastly differing standards and facilities.

He's been mostly based in Wellington since his arrival, so he's keen to see more of the country as NYC tours, but it's the dancers who will get most of his attention. "I want to see them develop into their roles."

The tour will also help him establish clear lines of responsibility in the company. It's all very well to want to be on good terms with his dancers, but "you have to know when to talk shop and when to not; when it's work, it's work".

He comes with a reputation as a hard worker and a man not afraid to push his dancers to the limit, but says he would never ask anyone to do something he hasn't done himself and he makes no apologies for wanting them to be the best.

And while he comes across as somewhat stand-offish in TV3's second season of The Secret Lives of Dancers, in person he's far from it.

His light-blue eyes project the intensity within, but he's thoroughly engaging and, if anything, pretty laid back.

He walked into filming of the television show when he started the job and says it does a good job of raising the public profile of ballet in the country.

While the programme is a typically manufactured behind-the-scenes reality show, it has thrust dancers such as Lucy Balfour, Abigail Boyle, Lucy Green, Tonia Looker and the statuesque Spaniard Sergio Torrado firmly into the limelight. But Murphy - who appears only briefly - says the real drama of ballet doesn't happen backstage or in the rehearsal studio. "The real drama is on stage."

Development is a key part of what Stiefel and Murphy hope to achieve with the Royal New Zealand Ballet and the pair allude to New Zealanders' general lack of self-belief holding many people back.

Perhaps it's a colonial hangover where, almost by default, foreign companies are considered superior. It's the "surely if they were any good they'd be with an overseas company" mentality.

It's something Stiefel wants to change.

"I want to raise the level of performance so they see the Royal New Zealand Ballet as the pinnacle and they don't have to go overseas," he says.

At the same time, he wants to see dancers develop so if they want to head offshore, they have the skills to make the most of it.

Murphy says she's already seen plenty of development since she arrived, and to her, it's easy to spot. "Lucy (Green), she's really developed."

And she's full of encouragement for dancers wanting to be the best. "I'd support them all the way," she says.

To be successful, dancers, of course, have to be able to dance, but what makes a good or great dancer is something Stiefel has to think about.

Aside from the physical side - punishing enough in itself - there's also the aesthetic, but what sets the best apart is "to make something their own" and to continually strive for improvement.

It's one of the reasons he loves dance. "You can never know it all."

When Murphy takes the stage, it's not hard to see why she's considered among the best in her field, but it's not easy, either, to identify exactly what it is that sets her apart.

Perhaps it's her impeccable timing or the seamless way she moves but even the untrained eye can recognise class.

While many in the arts world bemoan sports analogies, Murphy has no such qualms. "It's like a big match, you prepare for it and go out and perform as well as you can. I love the physical side of it and the aesthetic," she says.

For Murphy a good dancer is one who "puts themselves into the role; being able to portray the role in their own way".

And while she considers herself lucky to have a career doing what she loves, it hasn't come without plenty of hard work.

"It's not an easy profession. We're dancing six days a week.

"But I love the experience of getting ready and being up for the performance. Dance is so liberating."

The strict regimen means she has to refrain from doing things she enjoys, such as skiing, but is happy to wait until she retires for more of that.

"You can't be irresponsible with your body. It wouldn't be very good to turn up for work with a skiing injury."

Famously riding across America on the back of Stiefel's Harley-Davidson "is probably the most irresponsible thing I've ever done", she says.

She figures she's got another 10 years left as a dancer, body willing, and says for female dancers, it's often ankles and hips which give out, while for males it's backs and knees. "They do so much lifting."

But now she has a tour to complete, and during the third part of NYC - the Gershwin-inspired Who Cares? - Murphy puts in a stunning performance, underlying exactly why she's rated so highly, and she gracefully bows to the applause.

At 10pm, about 15 minutes after the curtain has gone down for the final time, the dancers slowly begin to emerge from the back of the theatre, where a few fans wait for autographs. Some catch up with friends, others head straight to McDonald's, and eventually Stiefel and Murphy emerge and head off up the road. Just another couple heading out for a meal.

ETHAN STIEFEL

* Age: 38.

* Born: Tyrone, Pennsylvania.

* Joined the Royal New Zealand Ballet as artistic director in September.

* He's been a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre since 1997.

* Studied with Mikhail Baryshnikov at his School of Classical Ballet.

* Began his professional career at 16 with the New York City Ballet.

* He has performed leading roles in all American Ballet Theatre's full-length classics.

* Has also been principal dancer with Zurich Ballet and has toured and performed with London's Royal Ballet, the Mariinsky Ballet (Kirov), Munich Ballet, National Ballet of Canada and the Australian Ballet.

* Received the Statute Award from the Princess Grace Foundation in 1999.

GILLIAN MURPHY

* Age: 32.

* Born: Wimbledon, England. Raised in Florence, South Carolina.

* Currently principal ballerina with American Ballet Theatre.

* Has performed leading roles in American Ballet Theatre's full- length classics and many shorter works.

* Starred as Odette/Odile in American Ballet Theatre's television production of Swan Lake.

* Danced with the Kirov Ballet, Royal Swedish Ballet and the Kiev Ballet.

* In 2009 she was presented with the Statute Award from the Princess Grace Foundation.

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