If America were as ballet mad now as it was in the 1970s, or if last year's Center Stagewere as good a movie as The Turning Point, the name Ethan Stiefel would be as iconic as the name Mikhail Baryshnikov.
It's certainly familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in ballet.
Stiefel dances as a principal with both the American Ballet Theatre in New York and the Royal Ballet in England.
August 3 and 4; Choreographers' Collection, August 8; Stiefel and Stars, August 9 and 10; Shanghai Dance Ensemble, August 9 and 11 (family matinee August 12).
Starring in Center Stage, Stiefel showed he has it all: power and elegance, speed and precision, humor and impeccable technique, as well as a Brando-esque sex appeal. Stiefel will be appearing at the Vail International Dance Festivalin a program of his own creation called Stiefel and Stars, with Amanda McKerrow and several of the American Ballet Theatre's brightest young dancers, including Sasha Radetsky, who also appeared in Center Stage. The program is diverse; it includes a lyrical piece by San Francisco Ballet director Helgi Thomasson; a heart-pounding pas de deux from Jabula, by Australian choreographer Natalie Weir, and a solo from Tharp's Known by Heart, followed by the third act of Sleeping Beauty.
Committing himself to dance in the first place was a risk for Stiefel, he says, but it was a risk he had to take: "My dad is a prison warden," he says. "What if I was, too? What if I was locking someone up, and all the time I was thinking, I could be in Vail now doing a variation? People could be clapping for me?"
Stiefel grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. Like many great male dancers (John Prinz, Edward Villella), he became interested in ballet after watching his sister take dance classes. He was eight years old and, he says, just "enjoyed moving around."
Eventually, Stiefel was able to study at the School of American Ballet in New York, as well as with Baryshnikov at his short-lived School of Classical Ballet. "Having him work hands-on with me was pretty incredible," Stiefel recalls. "He could do everything. You can be told how to do something over and over, but when you get that image, it makes everything a lot easier."
At sixteen, Stiefel was invited to join the New York City Ballet. Five years later, he became a principal dancer. He has done several Balanchine works with NYCB, as well as pieces by Jerome Robbins. Eventually, he joined the American Ballet Theatre -- where he danced leads in most of the great story ballets -- and now he divides his time between that company and the Royal Ballet.
"Audiences in America can be very vocal," he observes. "At ABT, they get so riled up that it's pretty amazing." There are times on stage, Stiefel says, when "it all comes together. They're feeding off me and I'm feeding off them ... Everything is standing still except me. I'm the only thing going through space. It's like a different world."
Asked what he dreams of for the future, he doesn't hesitate. "Longevity," he replies simply. "There's only a short period of time you can dance."
Getting Stiefel to Vail is an astonishing coup for festival artistic director Katherine Kersten, but it's not the only one. The festival features four full productions, including the Paul Mitchell International Evening of Dance, which showcases principal dancers from all over the world. This year's stars are Agnes Letestu and Jose Martinez of the Paris Opera Ballet, Damian Woetzel and Wendy Whelan of the New York City Ballet, Galina Stepanyenko and Nikolai Tsiskaridze of the Bolshoi, Ilja Louwen and Jens Weber of the Zurich Ballet, Rasta Thomas of the Kirov and Renata Pavan of American Ballet Theatre.