They Met at the Barre
Ethan Stiefel and Gillian Murphy Bring Their Expertise to American Repertory Ballet
By Anne Levin
Photography by Andrew Wilkinson
The first time Ethan Stiefel was approached about becoming artistic director of American Repertory Ballet (ARB), he wasn’t sure it was the right move for him. The Princeton and New Brunswick-based company had already performed a piece that the former star dancer had choreographed, and he felt a rapport with its dancers. But becoming their artistic leader was another matter.
“I was happy where I was,” said Stiefel, who at the time was coaching and teaching at American Ballet Theatre (ABT), the company from which he had retired a few years before. Stiefel’s wife Gillian Murphy was, and still is, a principal dancer with ABT, and one of its most enduring stars. Most importantly, they had a baby on the way. It seemed wise to stay put.
By the time ARB executive director Julie Diana Hench posed the question again, it was four months into COVID-19. The couple had sold their New York apartment, pre-pandemic, and were riding it out in a cabin in northeastern Pennsylvania. They weren’t sure when, and if, life would ever get back to normal and they’d be able to pick up where they left off.
“Julie was elegantly persistent,” said Stiefel during an interview in one of the sunny studios at ARB’s affiliated Princeton Ballet School. “And I had time to reflect. I thought, do I still have something creative to say? And is this a place where we can see our lives moving forward, and have a positive place for our son to grow up?”
Hench’s persistence paid off. By December 2020, ARB had announced Stiefel’s appointment as artistic director. He began the job last July. Murphy, whose career has included teaching and coaching as well as performing, signed on as artistic associate, and has since played a key role working with the company and students at the ballet school. Stiefel’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was his first new work since joining the troupe; it premiered at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center this past March to enthusiastic reviews.
“I felt it was the right time for us to make this move,” said Murphy. “This is a great place to develop talent. And it’s commutable for me when I’m rehearsing and performing in New York. Plus, it’s a great place for our son to grow up.”
Founded by Audrey Estee as the Princeton Ballet Society in 1954, ARB has had an impressive list of artistic directors over the years, including Dermot Burke, Septime Webre, Graham Lustig, and Douglas Martin. Snagging Stiefel and Murphy brought major name recognition and international credentials to the organization. Critics have praised them over the years:
“His performance was daring, explosive,” wrote New York Times reviewer Brian Siebert in a review of Stiefel’s farewell show at ABT a decade ago. “Pirouettes, jumps, and whole phrases started at what seemed to be full power and then amazingly turned up a notch. Risk was palpable, and yet classical form was never distorted. Instead, Mr. Stiefel channeled his energy into a marvelous tautness and torsion. The inevitable ovations were well deserved.”
Robert Gottlieb, reviewer in The Observer, described Murphy in 2018 as “the company’s senior — and still finest — ballerina. She’s been a principal for more than 15 years, dancing just about every role a ballerina can dance, and she seems as powerful and secure as ever. Murphy, with her striking red hair, has a rare combination of virtues: she’s rock-solid and she’s deeply musical.”
Both Stiefel and Murphy look impossibly young for their ages — he is 49, she is 42 — and carry themselves with the athletic grace unique to dancers. Both are friendly and genuine. Stiefel is talkative; Murphy a bit more reserved. They have been together for nearly 24 years. “We dated for 13 years, were engaged for three, had a honeymoon, and then got married,” Murphy said with a smile. Son Ax came along in June 2019.
Princeton clearly agrees with them. At the time of this interview, they had just signed a lease for a carriage house on a farm in Hopewell and were looking forward to moving in.
“It’s on a 100-acre parcel, which means there is so much room for Ax to run around,” said Stiefel. “He loves it here. He loves Terhune (Orchards). An amazing moment for Daddy and Ax was when we walked through the Princeton University campus for the first time. And most of all, he loves the sandbox at Marquand Park. The first time we went, he stopped and looked at me as if to say, ‘Is this for me? Can I play here?’”
A Pennsylvania native, Stiefel joined the New York City Ballet (NYCB) at age 16, quickly rising to the rank of principal dancer. He left for ABT when NYCB’s then artistic director Peter Martins wouldn’t allow him to explore guest appearances with other companies. Stiefel’s performing career has also included Ballett Zurich, where his sister was a dancer. From 2011 to 2014, he also served as artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet and dean of the School of Dance at the North Carolina School of the Arts. Fans of the 2002 film Center Stage know him as the hunky ballet star/bad boy who zooms onstage on a motorcycle. There has been a renewed interest in the movie this year, its 20th anniversary. “I was in Walgreens here in Princeton Shopping Center and someone recognized me,” Stiefel said with a laugh. “That hasn’t happened in a while.”
Murphy, who was raised in South Carolina, joined ABT at 18, and was promoted to the rank of principal dancer six years later. At New York’s Metropolitan Opera House this summer, she will dance two performances of Swan Lake and one of Romeo and Juliet. For three of the years that Stiefel was directing the Royal New Zealand Ballet, she was a principal guest artist — splitting her time between New Zealand and New York. Both she and Stiefel have fond memories of their years in New Zealand.
“Wellington is absolute heaven on a sunny day,” said Murphy. “We met so many amazing people. It was an adventure to be there.”
Stiefel’s grandmother was born and raised in New Zealand, giving him a personal connection.
“The distance, and being off the grid, was healthy and invigorating and exciting,” he said. “I think we did some good work there. They love their ballet company. It is really a part of the cultural fabric of the nation. But it was lonely after a while, especially when Gill wasn’t there.”
Moving back to New York, Murphy continued to dance leading roles in all of the company’s full-length classics as well as shorter works. In 2018, she graduated summa cum laude from St. Mary’s College of California with a bachelor of arts. She has also completed the Harvard Business School’s Crossover into Business program. Stiefel returned to ABT as a teacher and coach, a position the company created for him.
His job at ARB involves all of that, and more. There are 11 dancers in the troupe, six apprentices, and four members of ARB2, its second company. “They are all authentic and genuine,” Stiefel said.
Choosing to create a reimagined version of the ballet A Midsummer Night’s Dream this year made use of their dramatic and comedic talents as well as technical skills. Murphy took the lead role of Oberon, traditionally danced by a male. “It was fun for me to step out of what felt familiar, and create something very different,” he said in program notes for the performances. “I wanted to make it honest in terms of my own creative vision, but also genuine for the dancers in front of me right here, right now.”
Stiefel has a vision for ARB, which returns to the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center June 3-5 with Movin + Groovin, a triple bill of works created specifically for the dancers by choreographers Ja’ Malik, Caili Quan, and Claire Davison.
“My mission is to create new work that supports the company’s identity, inspiring people so we are building our own kind of special canon of work,” he said. “We want people in the community to feel it is exclusive, but also inclusive.”
Existing ballets are part of the vision, and will return to the repertory next year. Stiefel also wants to reimagine the full-length classic ballets. It’s a lot.
“We want to be real ambassadors,” he said. “Because we are doing so much new work, we are making ourselves connected to the now, and to the future. But we also want people to connect to ballet and its history — what it looks like in this new world we’ve emerged from.”
Nearly a year in, Hench is enthusiastic about the couple she was able to persuade to give Princeton a try.
“Ethan and Gillian both have such a humble yet charismatic way about them,” she said. “They inspire an incredibly high level of professionalism while bringing humor, grace, and creativity to our studios and stages. In just a short amount of time, they’ve expanded the organization’s network and provided unparalleled opportunities for our students, professional artists, and audiences. And it’s just the beginning!”