Next week the Royal New Zealand Ballet will take the stage in Los Angeles – the first time our national ballet has performed in the United States in 21 years.
The Wellington-based company will perform Giselle at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the LA Music Centre – a venue that has also been used to stage the Academy Awards.
There's a lot of buzz and high expectations about the company's American tour, which also takes in Santa Barbara, Minneapolis and – for the first time – New York, through to mid-February. And not all of it is at the New Zealand end.
The company's production of Giselle, which was turned into a feature film by acclaimed Kiwi director Toa Fraser last year, will star American ballerina and Royal New Zealand Ballet principal guest artist Gillian Murphy. It will be the first time Murphy will have performed Giselle in her homeland, where she has rock star status in dance circles – along with her husband, the company's artistic director Ethan Stiefel.
Stiefel and Murphy moved to Wellington in 2011, when Stiefel became artistic director – a move that delighted the Royal New Zealand Ballet, but surprised many in the United States and Europe.
Stiefel has worked extensively on the United States tour and says he has used his knowledge and links to his homeland in making it happen. He says while he hopes Americans will take notice because it is an opportunity to see the company in action, the name recognition of Stiefel and Murphy has probably helped. "It certainly got the ball rolling or people talking. I know that [giant arts management company] IMG Artists, that is presenting us, reached out to me early on. Also some theatres and venues did say that they were more intrigued than they might have been in the past.
"I think the company's work speaks for itself. I think if we weren't doing good work then you are not going to get an invitation, no matter what. But I do think my profile did at least get the ball rolling."
The company is taking its full contingent of 36 dancers, including Murphy, and small support crew, giving it a total of about 45 for the tour, says Stiefel.
Part of his planning was to highlight the versatility of his dancers and choreographers. While Giselle is performed for three days in Los Angeles and on February 5 in Santa Barbara, Minneapolis and New York will have a "mixed bill" of works. Minneapolis will include a Stiefel's own Bier Halle, a pas de deux, or dance for two people, along with Banderillero by company regular Javier De Frutos and Benjamin Millepied's 28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini.
But of special note for Minneapolis and New York will be the inclusion of Christchurch choreographer Andrew Simmons' Through to You. It will be Simmons' international debut.
"I chose to go in that direction because one of the strengths of this company is the versatility and to move from a more classical repertoire all the way to the more modern. Also, Javier and Andrew's work hasn't been seen that much in the US or even at all, so it seemed a great way to introduce a young Kiwi choreographer. These two works will be completely new to those audiences."
Stiefel says he was also conscious of the long gap since the company was last in the US.
"I think there's going to be a lot of audience members that are unfamiliar [with the company] so that's why there's a lot of attraction and enthusiasm.
"People have heard about it and certainly the reputation is solid, but I believe with the programming and the group of dancers we have people will see we have a very good company.
"We don't just represent the RNZB, we represent the society, the culture and the arts of New Zealand as well."
Stiefel, who turns 41 next month, returned briefly to New York in 2012 to perform in Le Corsaire. It marked his retirement as American Ballet Theatre's principal dancer. He says he has no plans to return to dance. "I try to keep in shape but for the moment it looks like that's the case. You never say never but there's a whole generation of fantastic dancers out there ... It's their time. I have the privilege of trying to contribute and develop and try to make at least the dancers here in New Zealand successful. That's equally fulfilling."
Before moving to Wellington Stiefel trained alongside ballet greats Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov – American ballet royalty. Along with Murphy, they were – and still are – rated as two of the best American ballet dancers in the world.
Stiefel had family links to New Zealand – his grandmother was born here – and learned a lot about the company, including advice from his Giselle co-choreographer Johan Kobborg. But his and Murphy's decision to be based here still had some in the American dance fraternity scratching their heads.
"There were a lot of people who were like 'What? New Zealand?' And I have to admit before three years ago I didn't think I would be living and working here, but I've come to embrace it and really able to grow and learn from the opportunity that's been given to me. The great thing is there have been some other projects that have come my way that have continued to get the RNZB's brand out there."
Stiefel's three-year contract ends in September this year. It poses the question, will he want to continue in the role?
Stiefel is diplomatic in his answer. He says that decision partly rests on the RNZB board and whether they would want him to continue. But he also still has to make the decision himself, and at this stage – just days before he flies back home – he is still in discussions with the board. "First of all, if the board wasn't satisfied with my work I wouldn't have a say in it. That takes care of it. But we are conducting mutual discussions and so on. There's a lot to wrap one's head around, also personally with my family and friends and so on being two days [by air] away.
"But you know, I'm just making the most out of the moment and the rest will be what will be."
The Royal NZ Ballet perform in the United States from January 31 until February 16. Its first Wellington season this year is Coppelia, St James Theatre from April 17
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