Ethan Stiefel’s three-year itch for his first love, Manhattan

The dancer and artistic director, Ethan Stiefel, the two movies – Centre Stage and Black Swan – and a new television series, Flesh and Bone, represent four degrees of separation.

Their connection began with Stiefel in the role of Cooper, the machismo dancer/biker in Centre Stage. Like Moira (Red Shoes) Shearer many years before him, the movie meant he became better known as an actor than a ballet dancer.

Centre Stage was released in 2000, a decade before Black Swan became the dance movie of the day, earning more than $300 million worldwide. The fragile heroine lived in a pink cocoon of unreality and a black prison of jealousy. As well, Black Swan triggered an outburst of negative commentary about the way in which it depicted the world of ballet – one of vicious rivalry, sexual abuse, vomiting, blood on the floor, an abusive artistic director and a smothering mother.

The last link to Stiefel and Black Swan, is now Flesh and Bone*, a new American television series produced by the cable network, Starz and due to be screened next year. Ethan Stiefel will be both consultant and choreographer for the series.

Until his retirement in 2011, he was a principal of American Ballet Theatre. He then took up the post of artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Stiefel had not directed a national ballet company before but the RNZB selection committee must have seen him as a great catch – a star that outshone the rest of the shortlisted candidates.

His initial contract was for three years but appears to have had a two-year extension. In October 2012 he referred to a five year plan when he discussed his aim to expand the company from the then roster of 30 dancers.

“Next year”, he said, “we might be able to add one [dancer] more, but we have to look over the course of five years what our revenue is, our budget”.

Earlier this month he announced that he would leave the company on 1 September.

“Despite how rewarding the experience has been, it has proved difficult on a personal level to be so far away from family and friends”, he said. “Furthermore, the distance has also made it challenging to explore other professional projects that have been presented to me, without taking too much time away from the company”.

Wouldn’t most artistic directors think their job was a fulltime occupation?

The most tempting “other professional project” was Flesh and Bone to be filmed in New York, where Stiefel maintains a home and where his fiancée, Gillian Murphy, is a principal with American Ballet Theatre while also guesting with RNZB.

Flesh and Bone’s central character is Claire, who joins a prestigious ballet company in New York. “The dark and gritty series will unflinchingly explore the dysfunction and glamour of the ballet world… she is a beautiful, soulful and deeply emotionally wounded young woman who possesses an innate innocence and fragility while at the same time harbouring self-destructive tendencies and a vaulting ambition. She is a transcendent ballerina, capable of reaching the sublime, but her inner torment and aspirations drive her in compelling, unforeseeable ways”.

Black Swan’s double it seems.

Sarah Hay, who danced in the corps de ballet in Black Swan, has been cast as Claire who is not the only troubled character in the series.

Damon Herriman, an actor in Justified, will play Romeo, “a strange and engaging homeless guy” who lives on the roof of Claire’s lower east side building. Josh Helman (X-Men, Fury Road) will play Bryan, who just returned home with a bad case of PTSD after serving in combat overseas”.

As in Centre Stage and Black Swan, a major role will be the company’s artistic director, described in publicity releases as “volatile and brilliant”. Called Paul Grayson, he will be played by the English actor, Ben Daniels (House of Cards).

Other cast members are connected with American Ballet Theatre, including former principal, Irina Dvorovenko, 40, who is now pursuing an acting career, and ABT soloist Sascha Radetsky, (who portrayed Charlie, in Centre Stage). Also on board is Raychel Diane Weiner, a dancer with Ballet Arizona.

The director of Flesh and Bone is the Australian, David Michod, whose debut feature film was Animal Kingdom, and the creator of the series is Moira Walley-Beckett (co-executive producer of Breaking Bad).

It’s interesting to speculate whether Stiefel’s decision to leave New Zealand took place before the RNZB’s tour of the United States, its first in 21 years.

His participation in Flesh and Bone was announced last November. The US tour began at the end of January.

On 22 February, The New Zealand Herald reported that after the four-city tour ended, Stiefel would be “staying on in New York for 10 days to start pre-production work on a new TV drama series, Flesh and Bone”.

In a phone interview from New York, Stiefel said it was “a great opportunity for me, to continue to grow creatively and artistically…I also think it is cool for the company as well…

“And I have to say it is nice for Gillian and I to go home together and spend time in our apartment in Manhattan that we share so much of our time together in and sleep in our own bed. That’s where I am right now”.

No hint that he would be leaving Wellington for New York in seven months.

Ten days after the interview was published, RNBZ announced Stiefel’s decision.

News of his departure was accompanied with glowing comments from the company but I can’t help but think that the directors will be checking that their new artistic director has no plans to do anything at all but remain at the helm in Wellington for a long time.

It’s interesting that Stiefel’s brief tenure is not the first time RNZB dancers have worked for a short-term artistic director. Bryan Ashbridge was artistic director for one year (1971), Una Kai (1972-75), Philip Chatfield (1975-8) and Ashley Killar (1992-95). The stayers were the founding artistic director, Poul Gnatt, Russell Kerr, Matz Skoog and Gary Harris.

* Flesh and Bone is also the title of a work by the Australian dance group, Kage, and a 1993 movie.

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Ethan Stiefel (left) and Sascha Radetsky (right) in Centre Stage, Columbia Pictures

Sarah Hay (left) and Arika Togawa, Semperoper Ballett, photo © Costin Radu

Raychel Diane Weiner, photographer unknown

Sarah Hay and Abigail Mentzer, photo © Alexander Iziliaev

Black Swan, 2010