Dance First, Think Afterwards

An Interview with Ethan Stiefel

Wendy Goodman: How has the ballet world changed for the dancer from the time you entered as a professional in 1989 to now?

Ethan Stiefel: I think firstly what hasn't changed is the commitment, the sacrifice. The resolving yourself to the fact that you're not going to get rich in the profession. All of that hasn't changed. What has changed, slowly but surely, is the support system for ballet dancers in terms of strength and conditioning.

It used to be that to get better in ballet, you just did more ballet and more repetition. Now sports medicine and various other things come into play to help strengthen your dancing but then also strengthen muscles that you're not using, so you're much more balanced. So I would say the holistic element, so to speak, has changed quite a bit. Also in terms of nutrition: making sure that you eat well and eat right so your work can be sustainable and you can be at peak performance.

The general approach — how to get the people's best performances out of them — has changed as well. Everybody obviously is an individual, so you have to approach it differently for every person. I think that way back in the day, it was almost over-regimented. And I have to say I've been fortunate that people I've worked with. They've always allowed me to have my own voice or to be inquisitive. I do think just the general approach in the atmosphere in terms of who's in the front of the room and who's on the floor becomes more of a conversation. I could see that subtly changing over the years that I was a dancer.

Goodman: Do you think it's a great advantage to have gymnast training in your background if you're a ballet dancer?

Stiefel: I think so. I wouldn't know exactly for myself because I went out and studied gymnastics and all of a sudden just found myself in ballet. (Not because the first time I was in class it became clear that it was my calling.) I was pretty good at the rings, evidently. That's what my mom said. So I guess from what I remember, it was a fairly grueling in terms of strength and your core. I think also that tumbling and making sure that your internal gyroscope is not only there but able to do things sideways or inverted — having that sensibility, I think, is something good.

Goodman: Do you think that ballet is in general much more athletic now?

Stiefel: I think the technique is always going onwards and upwards: the science of ballet. Which I'd be remiss in saying that's not the only point. Obviously, that's one of the components to being a great artist or dancer, the science of it or the physicality. There's all of the other things that come into play.

I was pre-social media. You were lucky if you were filmed for a DVD of a live performance. It wasn't necessarily so instant. I would look at those. If they came across performances that I had done then and even five years later, I think you could see the next generation taking on extraordinary things.

Goodman: Did you have your career planned out in advance? You are now an artistic director — what prepared you for that role?

Stiefel: I go back to the fact that I got involved in ballet because of my sister. That certainly wasn't planned. I just had a lot of energy, playing games in the house. So I went and sat in the lobby of the dance school in a strip mall in Monona, a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin. And ultimately, then, I got started. But that wasn't something where I went, "Okay, this is it." Whereas my wife, the dancer Gillian Murphy, at age four was like, "This is it."

I actually had quit ballet at 14. I was going to go into wrestling. Not the WWE or WWF. And running. Those were two things that were important to me. My dad was a prison warden for the federal system and he was transferred to the Manhattan Correctional Center, which is downtown by Police Plaza. I had been at the School of American Ballet the summer before, had gotten a scholarship. So essentially I was pulled back in to ballet. And that's when the penny dropped. To be at the School of American Ballet with Baryshnikov, Bujones, Nureyev. All taking class next to a pimple-faced little dude.

I was extremely inspired and said to myself, "This is what I want to do." At that time, Baryshnikov started the School of Classical Ballet. So I went to a summer course there, went back to SAB for the year, decided that American Ballet Theatre was where I wanted to be. Because in Wisconsin, American Ballet Theatre had been a touring company. I think it was in Minnesota that we saw them perform, and City Ballet wasn't necessarily touring that much. So that was always in the back of my mind. So I decided to then go to the School of Classical Ballet full-time. And within the first week Baryshnikov left the company and the school was instantaneously disbanded.

I went back with my tail between my legs to the School of American Ballet, saying, "Could I please come back?" My parents certainly didn't have the means to pay for an education, so I also asked "Could I also have my scholarship?" Fortunately they said yes. A week later I was invited to join the company. That's just a little bit of a look into how unplanned the whole thing has been. And then, yeah, we can speak about my departure.

Goodman: What prompted you to make that move?

Stiefel: American Ballet Theatre was always in the back of my mind as somewhere that I wanted to dance. Because the repertoire at New York City Ballet is quite different. Even though we're speaking the same language, it's with a different accent. I think Peter Martins, who was the director at the time, knew it. Sometimes he would come up to me and say, "You see? You see? You made the right choice being at New York City Ballet." But after six years, I felt that I wanted to do as much as I could with this body and mind and spirit.