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Interview: Catching Up with Ethan Stiefel, Artistic Director of American Repertory Ballet

Catch American Repertory Ballet in Movin’ + Groovin’ on March 25th at the Kaye Playhouse!

By: Mar. 22, 2023
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Interview: Catching Up with Ethan Stiefel, Artistic Director of American Repertory Ballet  Image

Ethan Stiefel is a household name. Considered one of the greatest American male ballet dancers of all time, it was Stiefel's explosive energy that lit up countless stages all over the world. But since his retirement from American Ballet Theatre in 2012, Stiefel has dedicated his artistic life to inspiring the next generation of dancers. As Dean of the School of Dance at UNCSA, to Artistic Director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Stiefel has helped shape the present-and future-of dance as we know it.

These days, he's spending his time as Artistic Director of American Repertory Ballet, New Jersey's preeminent professional ballet company. Announced as AD in 2020, Stiefel took the job after coaching the company on his piece, Overture, in 2019. As ARB ramps up to perform the much-anticipated Movin' + Groovin' on March 25th, I sat down with Ethan to chat about this monumental time, for both the company and him.

Q: It was big news when you were announced as Artistic Director for American Repertory Ballet. How did this opportunity come your way?

ES: Julie [Hench] reached out to me in 2019 and wanted a piece for an upcoming program, so, I became familiar with the company in that way. But... just sitting back and having some really wonderful time to spend with my son and be there for first steps or first words, and also be with my wife, Gillian, I thought, "Well, this might be a good time." And American Repertory Ballet, for various reasons, hadn't had an AD for nearly two years. Working with the company and getting a sense of the spirit of the organization, which I thought was really positive and inspiring...[it was] also an opportunity to see if I can contribute in a positive way in this different facet.

Q: What is it about ARB that's exciting to you?

ES: Working on this short piece that ultimately was performed in 2019-just that experience with the dancers, and their talent, and responsiveness. But this natural buffer in the way that there was a lapse in there being an AD, I saw it as an opportunity to hit the reset. And certainly, the company has a history that I'm looking to build upon, but it seemed like there was a place to move forward from that you don't have to be beholden to anything before. So, I think that was really exciting. It's [also] a special group of dancers that I think does special work.

Q: I love the name of the company's upcoming program Movin' + Groovin'. Can you talk about the inspiration behind this?

ES: I think that there's many different meanings to Movin' + Groovin. But...we're a company [who] can take some risk and do things a little bit differently. It just seemed bringing together three choreographers-Ja' Malik, Caili Quan, and Claire Davison-with three very different backgrounds and three different ways of moving...[it's] just really a celebration of creativity and moving. [It's] our dancers getting their groove on and doing what they do at the highest level, and in the way that they do, which is unique and authentic.

Q: What were the threads between these three choreographers that made them right for the Movin' + Groovin' program?

ES: That I really admired [them] and was now in the position to commission work from them [laughs]. But it was a bit of a risk, because I didn't know what it was going to be. I just really knew that I did indeed admire the work of these choreographers, who are at different places and different phases in their career, but certainly all three on the onwards and upwards trajectory. And I thought, three new ballets made on the company is such a great thing for us to develop that unique identity that will make ARB something that isn't just doing the work that every other company is doing. It seemed to make sense for the company right now, and also for the mission, in terms of developing new work, providing a platform for various creative people and voices...It really encapsulates this vibe of ARB.Interview: Catching Up with Ethan Stiefel, Artistic Director of American Repertory Ballet  Image

Q: What has been the most surprising part of this development process?

ES: The program itself. Kind of coming from all of these different places and spaces and really is one the most compelling and exciting evenings of dance. It really was that simple in that you bring good people in, and they just happen to deliver work that I think is really special to the company and to us. But also, to see what they were giving of themselves...and also their creative process...the fact that it came together in our first season, it was healthy ambition, but I felt like, "Well, let's put our stake in the ground." We're going to [continue] supporting choreographers locally and domestically especially, but those who just need opportunity to work with a professional company and the resources. Because that experience is beneficial through the process, [even] in terms of where someone might be years from now.

Q: Is there something that you hope people take away from the show?

ES: I think it's a wonderful thing for the company certainly...It's been a while for different reasons that the company has performed in New York. I'm just really excited, because I think that the dancers are exceptional, unique, and authentic, and are doing wonderful work. As I said, I think they're asking-which is such a beautiful thing-so much of themselves, because they just simply enjoy what they do [and] want to raise the game. For me personally, New York...[is] just always very special. It was a special place as a performer...and now, to come with this great group of artists and people, and be proud of what they're doing, I think it's just a really exciting moment and I look forward to being there and enjoying. [We're] just trying to do our own thing in our own way, so it's genuine and honest.

Photo Credit: Harald Schrader and Rosalie O'Connor.


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