Leap of faith for ballet rock stars

NEW HOME: Stiefel and Murphy at the Royal New Zealand Ballet's dance studios in Wellington.
NEW HOME: Stiefel and Murphy at the Royal New Zealand Ballet's dance studios in Wellington.

They are American ballet's rock stars, royalty and most revered.

Ethan Stiefel and Gillian Murphy have reputations so elevated that it's a surprise to see these two physically exquisite human beings in person, off stage. They are, however, like real people, just finishing the last mouthfuls of lunch from Caffe L'Affare, a new discovery.

Wellington's cafes have been a pleasant surprise to the Royal New Zealand Ballet's new American artistic director, Stiefel, and his ballerina wife, Murphy. And along with the unexpectedly good eateries came the joy of walking to work from their temporary rented pad around Oriental Bay.

"It's a 15-minute walk and an entirely different world," says Stiefel.

"It's amazing to be walking by the water when you are used to a train underground."

Work used to be in New York, where Stiefel and Murphy both retain their positions as principals of American Ballet Theatre (ABT). Murphy will spend about half her time back home and Stiefel will stay here, although he plans to dance at the Metropolitan Opera House in the American spring.

Beyond ABT, Stiefel has been artistic director for Ballet Pacifica in California and dean of the School of Dance of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. The New Zealand job is the first that Stiefel, 38, has needed to apply for, and score from 56 other applicants.

His grandmother was born here, and there are still a few distant relatives he had never met before, but that was hardly enough of a pull to New Zealand.

Stiefel's friend and choreographer Johan Kobborg, who will mount a production of Giselle with him next year, was influential in Stiefel contemplating the job. In the rash of slightly incredulous overseas reports that followed his decision to take it, The Guardian quoted Stiefel as saying: "When I got it, I rang him [Kobborg] up and said "Look what you got me into, man! You've got to help me out."
"And he did," says Stiefel, in his modest Wellington office, two weeks in to what is a three-year contract.

Stiefel first set foot in New Zealand about a year ago, saw the company perform in Christchurch and met his great aunt for the first time. "It's a kind of neat thing to meet someone at this point who you've spoken to for decades."
Murphy's family visited New Zealand a few years ago and were charmed by it  another factor in the couple choosing to come. They had serious talks about it, though  "and thought", says Murphy, "about how we felt, individually and together, professionally and personally. A big driver is that it's a naturally beautiful country, and then coming here and seeing the potential of dance."

It's all part of a fairy-tale run of romance and occupation for the couple who met when Murphy, 32, was an 18-year-old in the ABT's corps de ballet and Stiefel was its star.

"It would have been awkward if Ethan was a diva," says Murphy, "but he was down to earth. In real life, he was approachable and generous."

Three months after they began to date, he took her on a 5000km road trip on the back of his Harley Davidson motor bike.

"It was an adventure," she says. "It was really exciting. We haven't done one subsequently, because of time." And, she adds: " I didn't realise how hard it would be to sit still for that time, but I'd love to do a trip through New Zealand."
Stiefel's Harley-Davidson bike  "not the super-giant one, a smaller one"  did not come with them.
"We're step-by-step," he says, "keeping our feet on the ground, getting the lay of the land professionally and personally, where to live, what it would entail to ship the bike."

More importantly than the bike, they miss their abyssinian cat, Selah. "She's 10, middle aged, but 10 is the new five," says Murphy."I'm looking at quarantine and we're hoping she will come in July."

Stiefel and Murphy were both dancing almost as far back as they can remember. Stiefel is one of two children of a Lutheran minister who became a state trooper in Dallas and then a prison guard in Wisconsin.

At eight, Stiefel trailed off to keep his sister company at ballet lessons. The teacher pounced on him as a rare boy in a ballet environment. To his parents' surprise he took to ballet, and both siblings chose careers in dance. Eventually Stiefel won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet and trained alongside Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, soon joining the New York City Ballet as a soloist and then principal dancer.

In 1997, he came principal dancer at the ABT. He has also been a principal dancer with the Zurich Ballet, has danced with some of the greatest ballet companies in the world and starred in the movie Centre Stage.

Murphy, whose father was an accountant, comes from a family of four children and danced as a toddler. "I loved it from the beginning." She trained at the Columbia City Ballet and, at 17, joined ABT where she became principal dancer in 2002.
Sometimes they dance together, and although they separate their professional and personal roles, Murphy says there is "something very special and inexplicable" to partnering each other.

"We both love dancing together. There's something exceptional about being on stage with someone you share your life with. And there's a difference about how you go through the rehearsal process. You can speak differently, with a different level of honesty, knowing each other so well. You can be more direct."

That they are both dancers, says Stiefel, was incidental to them falling in love.

"For me it's all about Gillian and who she is personally, not whether she's a dancer or not. But it is a great thing if you can tour together and be on the road together, touring and performing, and to have someone to ask for advice who can understand where you are coming from.

"She's a great sounding board about any number of things, about what it takes and how the profession works, but if I'd met her and she did something else, I'd be attracted to her because of who she is."

That, says Murphy "is definitely mutual. It's kind of an added bonus that we've been able to travel the world together, but we come together as people, as non-dancers. We know when it's time to step out of the studio, even though dancing plays a huge part in our lives.

"We also realise when we should disconnect and unplug, that there are a lot of other things to enjoy", such as motorcycles, movies, friendships and sport. Stiefel has studied karate.

Both have had their tussles with injury. Murphy's ankle gave her trouble and Stiefel has had two knee operations, the last six years ago. He feels, since then, he has possibly done his best work, fired by "willpower and a bit of denial".
"You condition yourself to the fact [of pain] and bring more intelligence to the way you approach things. That in an odd way is a gift."

All ballet dancers push their bodies to the limit, adds Murphy, it's just that levels of discomfort vary.

Stiefel and Murphy are so starry in their profession that their departure Down Under meant infinitely more eyebrows were raised where they were departing from than where they were going. He didn't want to do interviews in New Zealand until he was settled, but he did tell all in interviews before he arrived. And, whoops, he launched the 2012 Royal New Zealand Ballet season before it did, in the New York Times, which reported that his first programme as artistic director will be New York-centric and include George Balanchine's Who Cares? and a premiere of Larry Keigwin and Benjamin Millepied's 28 Variations of a Theme by Paganini. Along with more Balanchine ballets, he said he is also eager to introduce works by Frederick Ashton, Jerome Robbins and Twyla Tharp.

Stiefel told the paper he intended to stage at least one major production a year. In 2012, it will be Giselle. For the scenic design of Giselle, Stiefel confided, he wants to branch out and take inspiration from English artists Aubrey Beardsley and William Morris and explore the psychological make up of the characters.

Yes, all true, says Robyn McLean, who is handling publicity in Stiefel's early days. "He let the cat out of the bag". A production of Cinderella is also being planned.

Murphy will dance in Who Cares? and possibly other ballets. "There are 32 other dancers to think about," says Stiefel. So far he is "working my way into the studio", through meeting after meeting. He aims to nurture local talent and a ballet "identity". No, he says, this doesn't mean it doesn't have one.

"The company has been going on for nearly 60 years and has a history which it needs to be able to clearly present and portray." He thinks of "versatility, solid spirit in approach to work, technical efficiency and overall energy."
That may be somewhat abstract, "but there's a lot for me learning about strengths and working towards them, providing challenges [for the company] to grow and expand. I have ideas, but at the same time it doesn't happen overnight. It takes time. I'm looking over three or four years.

"I am coming into an entirely different culture and company and I want to be respectful of the company history. I'm not going to turn it on its side. I'm here because a lot of people put in hard work before I got here.

"Identity is about giving the company something that is unique and is its own, taking into account what the company possesses already, a company that won't follow others, but has its own message special to us. I don't just want to create a Ballet Theatre in New Zealand, but what makes sense for the ballet in New Zealand, with new ideas and fresh direction."

For one thing, he intends to "create and choreograph, which I've done so far in a limited way". He hopes, with Kobborg, to create "pieces which will be successful and special to the Royal New Zealand Ballet".

Importantly, he sees the company has a big turnover of dancers. "I want to create an atmosphere where people want to stay and to come in the first place. I want to contribute, to take something good and build on it."

Stiefel will be in Wellington "as long as it takes to have the company move forward. It could be that we fall in love with everything, are happy and stay for a long time. But I remain humble. I don't know if it's going to work." Anyway, he says, how long they stay is as much up to the organisation.

He never felt on his first trip a feeling of "what have we done".

"Now that's reinforced. We feel pretty good about it all. Until we're settled in and find the different layers of life here and in New Zealand and the different layers of the company, it's a matter of time and patience.

"We're here because we want to be here. A lot of good things are happening, things going on that are opportunities for me professionally and personally."

The Dominion Post