Since then he's hardly been idle. He was already Dean of the School of Dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts from 2007-2011 when he was still dancing, then he became Artistic Director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet from 2011-2014, and Principal Guest Instructor at American Ballet Theatre from 2016-2021. He's choreographed many works, including numbers for Flesh and Bone, the 2015 television series, and pieces for The Washington Ballet and other companies. He's also been teaching, coaching, and serving on juries in the decade since he left the stage. Then, in 2021, he became Artistic Director of the New Jersey-based American Repertory Ballet. He brings this company to New York with a mixed bill programme called Movin'+Groovin', which opens on 25 March at the Kaye Playhouse.
I talked with him on the eve of the New York debut.
In 2011 you left New York behind and travelled 9,000 miles to direct the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Was that a good training ground for directing American Repertory Ballet?
I feel that many of my past experiences inform what I do today, but I am a work in progress. It's an ongoing process of reflection really – taking a look at what went well and what could have been done differently.
With that being said, ARB is a very different organization than the RNZB in so many respects. Therefore, I approach what I am currently doing by utilizing what is relevant and can gained from my past experiences, while continually embracing, developing, and being inspired by the possibilities ARB holds.
You took up the reins of ARB at the height of the Covid pandemic, commencing a hands-on role when hands couldn't be on anything at all!
I was not the AD during the first year of the pandemic, but navigating Covid-19 policies, personnel safety, audience safety and concrete planning during such an unsettling time did present challenges and prompt questions that I had not yet experienced. On the other hand, it reaffirmed for me that live performance and people coming together as an audience is, and I think always will be, a true gift and still a necessity for people.
So when were you truly able to get to work with the company?
I began working on ARB planning, recruitment, and other elements in January 2021, but did not move and officially begin work with the organization until 1 July 2021.
The first words that are seen visiting the company's site are: “Inspired. Inventive. Inviting.”
It speaks to our overall spirit and approach. It is the idea that we develop quality, compelling dance and wish to invite, welcome and share what we do with as many people as possible. The notion that ballet can be engaging and sophisticated, without being intimidating and daunting, is an important part of our overall culture.
For the mixed bill Movin'+Groovin', which was first seen last year, Stiefel has chosen three choreographers to work with the company: Claire Davison of American Ballet Theatre with Time Within A Time, set to the music of Fleetwood Mac; Ja' Malik, artistic director of Madison Ballet, with Moving to Bach, set to Bach's Sonata for Violin Solo No.1; and long-time BalletX artist Caili Quan with Circadia, inspired by an eclectic music mix ranging from Boban Markovic Orchestra to Gabriella Smith's Carrot Revolution. [see below]
Part of ARB's vision moving forward and connected to us building a singular repertoire of our own, is to provide opportunities for creative artists to grow and develop. I simply reached out to some wonderful people whose artistry I admire and who I felt would create something very different and unique from each other. From there, I just helped to guide any ideas and support Ja' Malik, Claire and Caili and what they wanted to see take flight. What the choreographers came up with, from the music to the movement, is intriguing, varied and meaningful.
What are you enjoying about working with this company?
I really love this bunch of artists. They are asking so much of themselves and also supporting each other in a beautiful and generous way. Each dancer possesses and exudes their own voice and individuality, yet it is a company that really pulls together as a collective.
So where do you see the company heading under your guidance?
My priorities for the future are to just keep sticking with the plan – original and re-envisioned ballets, developed and performed in our own unique way. Additionally, sharing what we do and being a positive ambassador of New Jersey Arts and Culture. If we aspire to be authentic and stay true to the vision of building a diverse and distinctive repertoire, my hope is that we further engage and grow our local audiences and in turn, begin to gain opportunities to tour regionally and beyond.
Stiefel is hardly your typical ballet company AD. His passion for motorbikes, and Harley-Davidsons in particular, has led to their inclusion in the Center Stage films, and in the documentary Born to be Wild. It has also given rise to his biker look, with his long hair and moustache. Does his appearance help to break down preconceptions about what ballet is and who it's for?
Not sure. I'm just being myself and I suppose enjoying the fact that I still have hair on my head and could grow a moustache after trying for 40 years.
American Repertory Ballet's Movin' + Groovin' will be performed on Saturday 25 March at 7:30pm
at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College located at East 68th Street between Park & Lexington Avenues.
Tickets start at $25. For more information, visit www.hunter.cuny.edu/kayeplayhouse or call (212) 772-4488.
Movin'+Groovin' – The Choreographers
Artistic Director of Madison Ballet, Ja' Malik has been called a “choreographer to watch” by The New York Times. Describing his piece Moving to Bach, Malik says: “I was inspired by both the dancers of ARB and Bach's beautiful Sonata for Violin Solo No. 1. This work for five dancers illustrates the ever evolving world of exhilarating physicality, in both a direct relation and counter relation to the rhythmically serene and sometimes explosive score by Bach.”
Malik previously danced with North Carolina Dance Theater (now Charlotte Ballet), BalletX, and Ballet Hispanico, in addition to working with Camille A. Brown (For Colored…at the Public Theater), Juel D. Lane, and College Dance Collective among others. With a deep connection to music, Malik's choreography draws on his own personal life experiences as well as the world around him to create physically emotional works that allow both dancers and audiences to experience a connection through the language of movement.
Caili Quan is a New York-based choreographer who danced with BalletX from 2013-2020. Her piece for ARB is inspired by how the body is affected during sleep. “Sleep gives us a place to recover, but it is also where our minds choose memories to keep. It also allows us space to reminisce and dream,” she says. “The music for the work is an eclectic mix that made me want to move, but also felt like a soundtrack to our dreams.”
Quan has created works for The Juilliard School, Vail Dance Festival, and others. Mahålang, a short documentary that wove familial conversations of her Chamorro Filipino upbringing on Guam with scenes from BalletX's Love Letter, was shown at the Hawai'i International Film Festival, CAAMFest, and the Dance on Camera Festival at Lincoln Center.
Featuring six songs from the legendary band Fleetwood Mac, Time Within A Time reflects on recent years and how it might feel to return to a place, such as a theater, studio, workplace – or to each other. The piece is also greatly inspired by the band's personal stories, highlighting founding member Peter Green. “The ARB dancers are a dream to work with: talented, eager, passionate, and willing to play. And, the music of Fleetwood Mac is unbeatable.”
Davison currently dances with American Ballet Theatre (ABT). Her choreographic credits include One of Us(2019) for Boulder Ballet, Por Ti for Kaatsbaan Cultural Park's 2021 Summer Festival and Kitchen Dances (2023) for Ballet Co. Laboratory. In 2021, Davison was selected as a choreographer for New York Theatre Ballet's Lift Lab, and she participated in ABT's 2019 and 2022 Incubator programs.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.