Last season, the San Francisco Ballet flocked to the Kennedy Center, leaving their indelible footprints on the opera house stage with a performance laden with uniform consistency. If SFB represents the best teamwork to be found on the dance scene, the American Ballet Theatre of New York is the varsity players of the form.
What distinguishes ABT from other world-class dance companies is a dedication to balancing the ballet vocabulary, giving equal notice to cutting-edge choreographers as well as maintaining the Russian classicism that was imported to America by George Balanchine. Ballet is still relatively new to Americans (it’s been performed on American stages by American dancers for only 70 years), so ABT designs to instill an audience appreciation for both the standard and the progressive idiomatic tenets.
From Feb. 3 to 8, the GW community will once more have the opportunity to experience world-class performers on its own turf. To help make the experience more palatable, as was the case when SFB visited last November, a performer from the film “Center Stage” can be seen throughout the run. Ethan Stiefel (who played the rakish heartbreaker Cooper Nielson) is – not to put too fine a point on it – the best male dancer in the country. And not since the legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov has someone been so universally revered and requested to headline ensembles here and abroad. He’s guested with the Boston Ballet, Royal Ballet and a handful of premier companies in between. In a recent Hatchet interview, Stiefel spoke candidly about life as a dancer and the upcoming program that Washingtonians are already clamoring to attend.
Happily, the personality of the performer is inversely proportional to the pedigree that has been bestowed upon him. In a crisp, dry Midwestern tone, he shrugs off the weight of his contributions to ballet. “To be where I am is humbling. To be treated with respect in this art form only makes you strive for betterment,” he said.
The fact is, until Baryshnikov, male dancers played second fiddle to their female counterparts. Stiefel is carrying the torch for the next generation of male stars.
“It’s thrilling really, that the men and women are now at the same level,” he said. “Both work so hard with each other and for ballet.”
On that note, one wonders if that was his initial reason to begin dancing.
“For the women?” he laughs. “To tell you the truth, I started taking lessons because my sister took dance, and I would sit in the studio, not doing anything. I wanted to do something with my time, so I tried it. I was only eight, and it wasn’t until after a couple years that I even really knew what girls were.”
Another excitement that ballet allows for is the ability to nearly defy gravity and take to the air in leaps and bounds.
“You really do feel like you’re flying,” he said.
Honesty is something Stiefel strives for with each pas de bourree and every allegro in his repertoire.
“Ballet is about sexual intrigue, but it’s also about true ideas and determination onstage and off,” he said. “But you can’t do this forever. It’s temporary so it’s important to do as much as you can.”
What about after dancing?
“I’d like to stay in dance,” Stiefel said. “I’m not sure what I’ll be doing when I stop performing, probably coaching or directing. I don’t think I have the taste for choreography, though.”
Stiefel would rather leave that to the visionaries who have composed movement from the wings as far back as 125 years ago. Two of ABT’s pieces at the Kennedy Center could serve as creative bookends for ballet. Nacho Duato’s choreography in “Without Words” gives the dancers a chance to affect statuary elegance during the quiet, motionless moments, and to show fluctuating motility when the piano permits them. They fill the space of the stage like layers of folded filo dough.
American Ballet Theatre represents both the frontier and previously charted terrain of ballet in the United States. And dancers like Ethan Stiefel are the beacons by which audiences can follow along the course.