An adventure in dance

New Royal New Zealand Ballet artistic director Ethan Stiefel.
New Royal New Zealand Ballet artistic director Ethan Stiefel.
Tonia Looker performs in <i>The Sleeping Beauty</i>
Tonia Looker performs in <i>The Sleeping Beauty</i>
Sergio Torrado in &lt;i&gt;The Sleeping Beauty&lt;/i&gt;. Photos supplied.
Sergio Torrado in <i>The Sleeping Beauty</i>. Photos supplied.

Now the Regent Theatre is operational again, the Royal New Zealand Ballet is returning to Dunedin with a storybook ballet, The Sleeping Beauty.

Ethan Stiefel is still wrapping his head around living in Wellington and getting a grip on the Royal New Zealand Ballet, having been in the artistic director's chair for little more than a month. 

The acclaimed New York dancer and teacher, and his partner prima ballerina Gillian Murphy, moved to Wellington in September, although their beloved Abyssinian cat, Selah, whom he describes as like their child, is still to join them.

He never dreamed he would be working here, at the opposite end of the world from New York, he says, and describes the move as an adventure.

"What I really enjoyed when I came for the interview was the spirit of the dancers, their approach, their work ethic and the fact they seemed quite hungry for new stuff.

"Also I felt ... from talking to other people in the organisation that one would have the flexibility to do some new things, execute some fresh ideas, so to speak, and have the support to do that," he said in a phone interview.

Stiefel (38) grew up in Wisconsin in the United States, and learnt ballet from the age of 8 because of his sister. They had both been learning gymnastics and she wanted to learn ballet.

"Because of scheduling, my mum wasn't able to get me over to gymnastics, and at the same time she wouldn't leave me at home because I was breaking furniture playing sports in the house and all that.

"I went and for the first month or so just sat in the lobby, then I thought, 'Well, I'm here and it looks like they are having fun and it looks physically engaging, which I've always been into.' So that's how it all started," he said.

"I really liked the athletic and physical characteristics involved and, at the same time, performing and being on stage is a unique and special thrill. I can't articulate specifically what it is, but the combination of athleticism with acting and performing for audiences seems to be something that really connected with me."

He still dances and trains regularly, and for the past few years he has also been dean of the school of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. He loves teaching, but finds the bureaucratic side of academia less fulfilling so he sees working with the New Zealand ballet company in a professional, but not academic situation, a good fit, he said.

"I was interested in coming here because I saw it as a great place to experiment and to look into the creative side of things for myself, and to become more invested in choreography, which is exciting for me. It seems like a natural evolution to come here and have a company and the opportunity to further develop the ideas that have been bouncing around in my head for years."

Stiefel's first job with the company has been to organise the 2012 programme, which reflects his desire both to build on the classical traditions of the company, and to include ground-breaking new works.

"I think that's what the dancer of today is interested in, that breadth of classic and contemporary repertoire. I think it's also what's interesting and engaging for audiences because something is going to speak to each person differently."

The season starts with NYC (New Young Classic), three works from New York, which, arguably, is one of the major dance centres of the world, he says.

Touring in March, it consists of a classic by George Balanchine, Who Cares? a tribute to his friend George Gershwin, and two contemporary works, 28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini by Benjamin Millepied and a new commission by Larry Keigwin, both noted New York choreographers.

A revival of Christopher Hampson's Cinderella tours in August, Angelina Ballerina's Big Audition, to charm children and adults, in October, and, in November, a new production of Giselle, choreographed by Johan Kobborg and Ethan Stiefel.

Stiefel's partner Gillian Murphy will dance in two of the productions, the New Young Classic programme and the title role in Giselle.

"It's a huge thing to have a prima ballerina in her prime; she'll continue working with the American Ballet Theatre as well, but to have her here is going to be wonderful for the dancers in the company and I think there's no question what it will mean for audiences to see her dance. She's top-notch, there's no doubt."


Dunedin designer Tamsin Cooper has released a fashion accessory collection to mark the Royal New Zealand Ballet's production of The Sleeping Beauty, and is holding a tea party at her Moray Pl boutique on Saturday, November 12, to celebrate.

Budding ballet dancers and their friends are invited to dress up and meet dancers from The Sleeping Beauty at the tea party. The tea party runs from 10.30am-noon, at Level 1, 30 Moray Pl, Dunedin. RSVP to to confirm your attendance.

• Tamsin Cooper is giving away two tickets to the matinee performance of The Sleeping Beauty on Sunday November 13.

To enter the prize draw, write your name, address and daytime phone number on the back of an envelope and send it to Sleeping Beauty, Editorial Features, Response Bag 500012, Dunedin, or email with Sleeping Beauty in the subject line, to arrive by November 8.


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