Break from the 'bubble' brings benefits

Choreographer Ethan Stiefel works with RNZB dancer Mayu Tanigaito in rehearsal for Giselle. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
Choreographer Ethan Stiefel works with RNZB dancer Mayu Tanigaito in rehearsal for Giselle. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
International dancer, teacher and choreographer Ethan Stiefel swapped leggings and dance shoes for leather and a motorbike recently. He tells Rebecca Fox about life after the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Driving thousands of kilometres on a motorbike across the United States is something Ethan Stiefel could never have done while working for a ballet company.

The former artistic director for the Royal New Zealand Ballet and choreographer of the company's production of Giselle has been making the most of his decision to go freelance.

''Since I was 16 until two years ago I was part of an organisation dancing or directing. It's been equally liberating and terrifying at the same time,'' he said while back in New Zealand to guide the latest production of Giselle to the stage.

He has been keeping busy choreographing television series Flesh and Bone, doing some teaching and coaching in Europe and also some choreography in New York and London.

''I've been able to combine the teaching and coaching with the creative work so it's kept me motivated and paying the rent.''

The lifestyle has its benefits as he can choose his projects, spend more time with friends and family and do some exploring - enter the road trip.

''It has given me the freedom to step back and look at the industry with a different perspective.

''I lived ballet fully and passionately every day until I was 41. There is something to be said for being outside the bubble.''

Stiefel gave his final performance with the American Ballet Theatre as principal dancer in 2012, and moved straight into the artistic director role in New Zealand.

The 15,000km road trip, camping along the way, is something he does not think he will get the time to do again.

''It was the right moment for me. It's a good way to immerse yourself in the diversity that is the US, the deserts to the alps to the glaciers and everything in between.

''I did a lot of parks I hadn't done before. It was a great experience.''

A motorbike is his chosen form of transport - he had his motorcycle licence before his car licence.

Travelling to work from his home in upstate New York was more cost-efficient on a motorcycle when he joined the New York City Ballet.

''But work as an artistic director is 24-7 so I didn't get to do as much. So being back in the saddle was about reconnecting.''

He was enjoying being back in New Zealand and visiting the company he worked with from 2011 to 2014.

He has created the RNZB's latest production of Giselle, alongside Danish dancer and choreographer Johan Kobborg.

It is the second time he has returned to New Zealand since his earlier stint as ballet artistic director. The first was to help put Giselle together for its international tour, ensuring the artistic vision he and Kobborg had was continued.

He was enjoying meeting dancers new to the company and seeing the progression of the dancers from his earlier time.

''It's nice to see the progression of the ballet of Giselle grow and evolve and maintain the connection to the company.''

The origins of Kobborg and Stiefel's Giselle came from the early days of his time in New Zealand as they shared ideas and concepts. Both had danced Giselle before.

''The ballet itself is classical, right up there with Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. It's timeless - about a man betrothed falling in love with another lady.''

It was a work that resonated with people and required huge physicality as well as dramatic ability from its dancers.

''I'm happy Giselle has remained part of [artistic director Francesco Ventriglia's] vision.''

Stiefel is heading back to New York to start teaching at the American Ballet Theatre more consistently, across all levels of the school and its companies.

''I'll have a substantial and consistent workload but still have the time and ability to do some outside work and travel.''

Stiefel had been passionate about teaching before choreography, believing it was important to pass on the ideas given to him by his teachers as well as his own.

''It's a rewarding thing to see over time people evolve and move on to the next level.''

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