Dancing Dean: Ethan Stiefel Leaps Into a New Role at the North Carolina School of the Arts

by Ariel Osterweis Scott

Dancer Magazine, July 2008

On the eve of his performance as Solor in American Ballet Theatre’s “La Bayadère” opposite Julie Kent, Ethan Stiefel takes a moment to speak with me about his new appointment as Dean of the School of Dance at the North Carolina School of the Arts (NCSA). You may wonder why a 35-year-old principal dancer would take on such a large administrative responsibility at the peak of his performing career. Despite the fact that Stiefel feels he is “dancing better than ever” after four knee surgeries in two years, he was unable to pass up the opportunity to apply for the position at NCSA. Having founded the elite training program Stiefel and Students on Martha’s Vineyard, Stiefel has always been dedicated to pedagogy and the future of American dance. He feels it unnecessary to erect a strict division between his performing and teaching careers, believing teachers have the most profound influence on their students by “leading through example.” This dean will be dancing.

Although Stiefel will now “be more selective” with his performing career, the star will continue to thrill American Ballet Theatre (ABT) audiences, appearing in upcoming seasons with the company while upholding his tenure at NCSA. In fact, to teach while performing is what will lend his instruction a sense of relevance in this contemporary moment. Not only does Stiefel feel that teaching informs performance and vice versa, but he hopes that his dual role of dancer and dean will inspire his students to develop the type of diverse, nuanced work ethic he has adopted—one informed as much by activities outside the studio as by careful attention to technique and dramatic development. Stiefel’s path is well-known: he has traversed from rural Wisconsin to the School of American Ballet to the highest ranks of New York City Ballet and ABT and onto the screen in “Center Stage”…all the while atop his beloved Harley. This whiz kid—all grown up—is ready to reveal the secrets of his success to the next generation of talented dancers.

Crucial to sound technique is an “open mind and a keen intellect”: Stiefel emphasizes his belief that a young dancer should extend his gaze beyond a single technique, approach to movement, or even way of life. For example, his “men’s training camp” class will include “athletic enhancement, strength training, creative dialogue…even volleyball. It’s not just men’s class.” Having motorcycled across America, Stiefel immerses himself in diverse activities as a way of maintaining perspective, which ultimately reinvigorates his artistic practice. Even in the most abstract of ballets, Stiefel steers clear of a technique-for-the –sake-of-technique approach. He tells me, “Even in a ballet that’s abstract, there’s still a narrative. To get dancers thinking in a narrative way even in an abstract role is what makes an artist. You have to have a point of view. ‘Abstract’ is not just about dynamics, athletics and energy. No, it’s about flavoring, phrasing and what you’re trying to say. You still have to say something… something that’s been thought out, a point of view.”

Ethan Stiefel in “Swan Lake”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Stiefel is committed to nurturing his students’ individuality and narrative impulse, basing his pedagogical ethic on his own career. Even in contemporary ballets, he draws on dramatic techniques he learned dancing in classical story ballets at ABT. He finds the abstract ballets of his former New York City Ballet just as thrilling as ABT works such as “Swan Lake” and “Giselle”. Allowing the new to inform the old and the old to inform the new are equally important to Stiefel, who reminds us that virtuosos like Baryshnikov brought new steps into the classical ballet repertoire, and “were actually reinventing technique.” Stiefel continues, “Therefore, why are we not reinventing it? It’s now time to move into the future. My goal is to be progressive.” Nevertheless, Stiefel repeatedly emphasizes the importance of “purity,” saving risk-taking for repertoire, where stylistics enter. Stiefel’s method is far from haphazard: “The classroom is about purity of form, open mindedness and solidity in technique and fundamentals. You introduce the stylistic things through your repertoire.” In bringing this commitment to clean technique to NCSA, Stiefel’s ultimate goal is to promote artistry with integrity: “In ballet, you don’t want to have the stigma of saying, ‘I am someone from the Kirov dancing Forsythe.’ You want to be wearing the Forsythe style. In modern, you don’t want to say, ‘I’m a Taylor dancer dancing Cunningham.’ NCSA is about “having a dancer who is creatively intuitive, with a sound, pure base. An NCSA dancer will have the ability to immerse fully, and I think that’s what it’s about—to extend yourself in different directions while [experiencing] total immersion.”

Stiefel is eager to move beyond the confines of certain dance traditions that emphasize conservation as opposed to innovation: “I’m not interested in a conservatory, because that’s to conserve. I’m about progress and innovation.” Albeit in jest, Stiefel prefers the idea of an “innova-tory” over a conservatory. “I don’t think art is about conservation. That will happen naturally if there’s a respect for the art form. The objective is not to conserve or preserve; it’s about enlightening.” Stiefel hopes his presence in the studio will “enlighten”— that is, serve as a real-time example of training-in-motion.

Realizing NCSA’s rare position as a school that operates within an academic university system while upholding standards of an arts academy, Stiefel wants to build upon the school’s rich past as an institution (founded in 1963) that has promoted excellent training without having to adhere to any company’s singular aesthetic: “We’re not beholden to anything.” Unlike a school such as the School of American Ballet, which adheres to the aesthetic of its parent company, New York City Ballet, NCSA’s School of Dance offers both ballet and contemporary tracks, and dancers in either track have the opportunity to learn various techniques from multiple disciplines: ballet dancers take contemporary classes and contemporary dancers take ballet. Furthermore, contemporary is further diversified in its inclusion of Cunningham (through assistant dean Brenda Daniels), Limon and more. In annual performances, NCSA students have the opportunity to share the stage, as ballet and contemporary dancers are often cast in pieces together, reflecting the dance world’s current interest in versatility. Guest choreographers include Alonzo King of LINES Ballet, and repertoire includes that of Twyla Tharp, George Balanchine, Lar Lubovitch, and Jirí Kylián. This year, Stiefel will add contemporary choreographers Larry Keigwin and Jannis Brenner to the list. Furthermore, it is his goal to “mix it up. I will experiment…bringing in martial arts and hip-hop.”

While alumni of NCSA have secured careers in premier companies such as ABT and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, others have gone on to careers in choreography, directing, teaching and musical theatre. Although the school is predicated upon a sense of versatility, Stiefel is realistic about the fact that there are still distinct differences between the rigors required of ballet and those required of contemporary training, and each track emphasizes different modes, such as ballet’s attention to pointe and partnering and contemporary’s emphasis on learning the differences and similarities between diverse techniques. Stiefel states, “The rigors and etiquette of ballet are so definitive; ballet technique is unnatural for anybody.” Although Stiefel is aware of how his own physical gifts of tapering legs and high arches have been a career asset, he sees beyond such characteristics when choosing students for the school, stressing the fact that NCSA seeks potential (as well as physicality) in its young dancers.

In the audition process, NCSA looks for dancers who possess “potential, and that involves their expressiveness, musicality, physicality, intellect.” He values NCSA’s model of diversity in which a student is exposed to multiple teachers and multiple techniques: “There is more than one way to achieve.” Stiefel reflects on his own training at the School of American Ballet (SAB), where he realized that certain teachers resonated with him more than others. His SAB teachers also encouraged him to accept multiple models of achievement. In fact, Stiefel hopes that NCSA dance students, surrounded by students of Design and Production, Drama, Filmmaking, Music, and Visual Arts, will go onto careers not only in dance and choreography, but also in “academics, criticism and writing.” It is also important for Stiefel to recognize and nurture the diversity of North Carolina youth. He states, “There’s room to grow in the community—not only in Winston-Salem, but in the state of North Carolina.” Following in the footsteps of NCSA’s “pioneering spirit” is important to Stiefel, who wants to “bring in a fresh perspective.” Keeping an eye on the importance of community-building in American dance, Stiefel encourages “students to become more active in their professions, not just in their dance studies.”

Stiefel tells me that upon moving to Winston-Salem this September he will be the first one in the studio, “taking daily technique class at 8:30am, before teaching ballet classes for the students at 10:20.” Although he will be active on an administrative level, from fundraising to selecting guest choreographers, Stiefel sees himself as a dean who will work from the inside out, spending most of his time in the studio, working closely with students on a daily basis. Taking each student seriously, Stiefel believes, “Once you accept a person into your school, you have a 100% commitment to that student no matter what.” If his commitment to his own career in dance is any indication of the impact he will have on the future of American dance, then NCSA students are in for an invaluable experience. As dean, Stiefel has a plan for the future, based on old-fashioned hard work. As he says, “I have a day job now which is being a dean…and another day job which is being a dancer. It’s my nature to roll up my sleeves and get involved.” Step by step, hour by hour, Stiefel is sure to make his innovative mark.

Ariel Osterweis Scott is a contemporary dancer, choreographer, teacher and ethnographer and is currently working on her Ph.D. in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley. She can be reached at aos@berkeley.edu.