Interview: Ethan Stiefel And Gillian Murphy are Taking American Repertory Ballet to New Heights

Don’t miss the 70th anniversary performance celebration, Elevate, at Kaye Playhouse on March 30th!

By: Mar. 28, 2024
Interview: Ethan Stiefel And Gillian Murphy are Taking American Repertory Ballet to New Heights
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Ethan Stiefel and Gillian Murphy are two of the world’s greatest dancers of all time.

A bold statement, yes—but one undeniably supported by their decades spent delighting audiences all over the world. Stiefel, singular for his excellence of classical technique and precision; Murphy, for her poetic resonance and bravura, the duo have each made names for themselves that will be long remembered in the history books.

But, perhaps even more impressive than their performance careers is the equal time they’ve spent behind the scenes, coaching and mentoring the next generation of dancers. With deep roots tied to premier institutions like, UNCSA and ABT’s JKO, Stiefel and Murphy have now been putting their focus on American Repertory Ballet, serving as Artistic Director and Artistic Associate, respectively. By commissioning new works from diverse talents, fostering dancer development, and putting contemporary twists on classic repertoire, the duo is determined to bring a larger spotlight to the talented company of ARB, ensuring they shine as brightly as the can.

I recently sat down with the pair to talk about the company, as it gears up for its 70th anniversary performance at Kaye Playhouse on March 30th.Interview: Ethan Stiefel And Gillian Murphy are Taking American Repertory Ballet to New Heights

Q: We talked a lot last year about your vision for ARB as this opportunity, not only to commission talents of diverse artists, but to foster that talent over time. You’ve obviously been working toward that goal. What does it feel like now that you’re celebrating this 70th anniversary milestone with the company to see that vision in motion?

ES: A year ago, we had a couple of things under our belt, but we were still developing the idea of our own kind of original, authentic repertoire. But, I feel now that the amount of new work that we’ve done, both in the cutting-edge, contemporary ballet genre, as well as reinvigorating some of the classic works—it sets the company up to really springboard into the future with our own identity. We’ve built up a canon of repertoire that is solid, from having our own Giselle, our own A Midsummer Night’s Dream—and so many more modern and contemporary ballet works from diverse artists that it’s almost a new company, even though it’s built on that 70-year foundation.

Q: It really feels like you’re embracing the old and tipping your hat to it, but you’re focused on the forward—which is always exciting, because you’re giving new people an opportunity to shine. 

ES: This [Elevate] program is just another encapsulation of the approach. [First, we have] a new score by a young composer, Miranda Scripp, who is studying film scoring at NYU for Intrare Forma, created by Meredith Rainey. Then, Amy Seiwert’s Sight Line, which she made last season after our Kaye performance in New York. And then, that balance that we’re talking about, this work that I made called Wood Work, which I like to call ‘progressive classicism’. I think that the program embraces the approach in a small way, but it does speak to our spirit. 

Q: I also think [this approach] speaks a lot to the Trainee Program that you’ve established. 

ES: I’ve been very committed. It’s not only about the development of the ballet language, in terms of its classical base, but then evolving [it] and being spoken a different way, depending upon the people who are creating the work and dancing the work. Dancer development is pivotal, in terms of the vision. I spoke a lot last year about the vision of the repertoire, which is fundamental. But I think what’s also extremely special here is that we’re completely dedicated to dancer development. Every year, I will have taken at least one dancer, if not more, that have been a part of the trainee program. And I think that speaks to an investment, not only in ARB, but in the organization in general, of not only nurturing talent from the outside, but trying to foster and really nurture talent from the inside out.

Q: Both of you have danced for these enormous, global companies—everyone knows your names. But what I think is so remarkable about both of your careers is that you’ve dedicated just as much time to teaching in many different places. Gillian, I’m really curious to hear: How does that work that you’re doing behind the scenes inform how you perform and how you move into the next phase of your dancing career?

Interview: Ethan Stiefel And Gillian Murphy are Taking American Repertory Ballet to New Heights GM: Yeah, it’s such a good question. I feel like it’s been very enriching to my own dancing, to teach and coach as much as I have. The discovery that happens as a dancer every day in rehearsal, and to be part of that on the other side, really makes me have to dig even deeper into what is essential. If I’ve been giving as much constructive criticism as I can and trying to be as inspiring as I can, to really express that myself in my own dancing is key. The most recent example of that was coaching the Odettes for the Swan Lake here, and I was just astounded by how [they] brought themselves to their debuts. It really inspires me on every level, but also as I revisit Swan Lake myself at the Met Opera House this season, I’m freshly inspired to dig in and to really go there like these dancers do. In every piece that they do, they really really go for it in such an authentic way. It’s extremely inspiring.

ES: [It’s amazing] just how much Gillian has contributed to what the organization is doing. We had a dancer who unfortunately got injured two days before our run of performances, and this included Swan Lake…she had been in the studio with them working for five weeks, being completely encouraging but at the same time, constructively challenging them. And she then amazingly said, “Well, I’ll step in.” And you think dancing this role for decades, it’d be easy-peasy, but ultimately, I think it might have been one of the more nerve-racking performances I’ve seen her go through [laughs]. All of a sudden, the teacher is now the student, and out there on stage and having to deliver all of those things that she’s been inviting the other dancers to do.

Q: What do you hope your dancers take away from the performance on Saturday?

GM: I hope they can really enjoy this performance and feel so proud of themselves and what they have to offer. I feel that audiences are really in for such a treat to see this triple bill, and see how the dancers have so much heart and so much poetry in them—and they’re putting it all out there.

ES: I think that an anniversary year always brings things into focus and grounds things in a different way. It’s such an exciting moment to get to New York and perform in a place that all of the wonderful companies perform in, and historically what has transpired there [New York] in so many different facets of dance and theatre. But [I hope] that they can sit back and...know that they completely own what they’re doing and they really are American Repertory Ballet. It comes down to what their integrity is, and also the fact that they really do believe—they have bought in. So, I hope they take away from it not only how far they’ve come as dancers, and how much they’re giving in turn to everybody else, but how much everyone here in the organization believes and wants to support them. They are truly authentic and special—and I think that is something that [makes] ARB quite distinctive from other companies right now. We’re not anybody, and we’re not trying to be anybody but ourselves, and doing that through speaking the language of dance and repertoire that are signature pieces of this group of dancers.

Photo Credit: Kyle Froman and ARB