From barre to bar

Originally published February 20, 2013 in Capital Times. 

Royal New Zealand Ballet and local brewery Garage Project don’t seem like drinking buddies, but they’re putting together a special pilsner-powered performance to celebrate the world premiere of Bier Halle – quite possibly the first ballet about beer.

The connection with Garage Project came through one of the RNZB dancers, Antonia Hewitt, who goes out with a brother of one of the brewers. Hops En Pointe will be a pilsner made with champagne yeast to lend it an air of the upper crust, but it still begs the question: do professional ballet dancers ever get to drink beer or cut loose at a club?

“We don’t get into anything ugly, not the 2am or 3am phase of an evening,” laughs Ethan Stiefel, seated behind the desk in his office at St James Theatre where he’s now full-time artistic director. A dancer since the age of 16, Stiefel sports the breezy blond shag of a ‘70s-era heart throb with an acoustic guitar, but his handshake is a bone-crusher and muscles pop from the confines of his t-shirt. He’s still totally ripped even though he danced his final role last July with American Ballet Theatre, where he’d been principal dancer since 1997.

“I’ve since retired so I probably have a few more evenings out,” he admits, adding that he and fiancée Gillian Murphy are getting to know Wellington’s bars and restaurants after moving here from the United States two years ago. Though he’s feeling less weight on his shoulders to keep up the conditioning required to dance, he says there are still pressures – just different ones. “It’s about being a leader, an example, and being responsible for the success of other people.”

Those pressures include choreographing his first original piece, Bier Hall, which has its origins in his Wisconsin childhood, where polka is not entirely a thing of the past and beer-drinking is just as popular as it is in New Zealand.

“I thought it would be fun to do a ballet with polka music,” Stiefel says, adding that the idea of a ballet in a Bavarian-style beer hall has been bubbling in his mind for over two years. Unfortunately, polka didn’t quite settle the score and he ultimately found solid footing in Johann Strauss waltzes and marches.

Stiefel has been working with RNZB since 2011, most recently on the well-reviewed reinterpretation of Giselle, however Bier Halle is his first original work. It premieres with two other short pieces Of Days by Andrew Simmons and The Anatomy of a Passing Cloud by Javier De Frutos. The three, packaged as Made To Move, will tour New Zealand after a premier run at the St James Theatre opening February 27.

The two other original works in the programme draw on New Zealand and Pacific landscapes, but for Bier Hall Stiefel looked back toward old Europe to create a ballet set in a fictional Bavarian beer hall – an idea he’s been contemplating for two years.
“I’m relatively new to choreography and music is a good place to start,” he says, adding that it enabled him to picture the characters and build a story.

“The ballet is about what we’d experience as people going to a pub or bar,” he says. “It speaks to the flirtations, competitiveness, and boisterousness of a pub, with the quieter couple tucked away amidst all the revelry.”

The story uses elements of fantasy inside the actual buzz of a barroom, while a romance blossoms between a Hunter, danced by Qi Huan and the lead Bier Maiden, danced by Murphy, whose “love of dancing” and “fun” approach inspired him.

“It’s wonderful to have a muse who you share your life with,” he says of Murphy, who will tour with this show before returning to ABT in April, where she’s still employed as a principal dancer.

Alongside the two leads, the rest of the RNZB company dancers fill another 20 roles.

“I wanted it to have that kind of fullness and refer to some choreographers that influenced me as a dancer,” he says, listing Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, and Frederick Ashton, among others. He was also conscious of the small casts in the pieces by De Frutos and Simmons. “It’s a good thing for the company if everyone’s active and engaged. I’m a choreographer looking out for ambitiousness of the work and I’m an artistic director looking out for the good of the company.”

As for the overall direction of RNZB, Stiefel says he’d like to keep growing the size of the company by a dancer per year and would like to see more international touring, including China this year and potentially the US in 2014, for the first time in decades.  Building a unique repertoire for New Zealand is also important to him.

To that end, why does he think Bier Halle will appeal to local audiences? He says, “I think beer is pretty well celebrated in New Zealand. My ballet refers to Germanic and Austrian culture, but it could be in an English pub. I think these are things across humanity.”



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