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New 'Giselle' production a pas de deux between friends

NEW YORK — Between them, Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg have performed in dozens of "Giselle" productions over the years. Kobborg alone estimates he's danced in 25 versions of the beloved Romantic classic, created in 1841.

So when these stellar danseurs and longtime friends joined forces to create a new "Giselle" production in late 2012, the three dozen dancers of the Royal New Zealand Ballet were benefiting from considerable combined experience and insight.


FOR THE RECORD:
Royal New Zealand Ballet: An article in the Jan. 19 Arts & Books section about the Royal New Zealand Ballet said the troupe was performing "Giselle" only in Los Angeles. It is also being performed in Santa Barbara. —


A feature film about the production has been released commercially at home and is being shown at Dance on Camera festivals in this country. It also helped initiate the ballet company's current U.S. tour, continuing with stops at Santa Barbara's Granada Theatre on Feb. 5, Minneapolis and New York. ("Giselle" is being performed in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.)

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In 2011, Stiefel, the blond, technically brilliant former American Ballet Theatre star, took the plunge and moved halfway around the world to become the company's artistic director.

He was drawn to its history of performing 19th century classics alongside contemporary work and not being beholden to any long-standing tradition he'd feel obligated to uphold. Having recently begun — almost to his own surprise — developing an interest in choreographing and staging his own productions, he saw it as an ideal place to spread his wings — as well as bring a fresh American perspective to the repertory. During his first season, he offered a program combining works by Balanchine and Benjamin Millepied with a world premiere by New York choreographer Larry Keigwin.

But full-length classics feature in every Royal New Zealand Ballet season, rotating in and out of the repertory. "'Giselle' hadn't been done for five or six years. Johan and I had discussed collaborating on several different productions. It seemed this was a great opportunity — also something that's good for the company, early in my tenure."

Ballet productions — new works or stagings of older works — tend to be the provenance of a single figure, but the two men were confident that a collaboration would work well for all involved.

"I've known Ethan for so long; we met during the '90s on the international guesting circuit," Kobborg said by phone from London. "We've always been very close friends and really respected each other, though we're very different personalities. So we knew that — although it's not something you see often, two people collaborating choreographically — we'd be able to help each other, inspire each other and create something together."

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Between them, the two men have been affiliated with several of the world's major ballet companies. Stiefel, 40 — who trained in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin before coming to the School of American Ballet, emerging as a prodigy at 16 — began his career with the New York City Ballet.

He spent a short time in European companies before joining ABT, where he performed all standard lead roles but also excelled in contemporary ballets; roles were created on him by Twyla Tharp, Christopher Wheeldon and others.

Kobborg, 42, a product of the Royal Danish Ballet's school, was a leading member of that company for 10 years before joining London's Royal Ballet, where he danced until recently. After his many leading roles with the Royal in London — where he often partnered his offstage companion, Alina Cojocaru — he has an active guesting career that has brought him to ABT, the Bolshoi and other Russian troupes.

Kobborg had the greater experience in staging full-length ballets. He'sstaged productions of "La Sylphide," the best-known ballet by Denmark's August Bournonville, for six different companies, and has created original works for the Danish and London's Royal Ballets. Stiefel oversaw a "Nutcracker" production during his tenure as dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and found himself eager to work further in that area. Last season, he created a one-act comic ballet for Royal New Zealand's 60th-anniversary program.

The two men were not aiming for a radical re-thinking of "Giselle." Their goal was a production incorporating the best of what they'd discovered about the ballet over the years.

"I'm a classicist; so is Ethan. We both respect the past. So I don't feel we've gone in and destroyed any of what we would think is the essence of the style," Kobborg said. Their goal was "a way of doing the ballet that could enhance it, put a focus on different elements."

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Their "Giselle" includes a good deal of the traditional, well-known choreography, particularly in the second act. But they did bring a fresh perspective, and deep familiarity with the lead character of Albrecht — the nobleman who toys with a village girl's affections, with deadly results. Their version is presented from the perspective of a much older Albrecht, seen at the start.

"The ballet is being played in his head. He essentially has played this story over and over, ever since that fateful day, for many years," Stiefel said. "By just adding a few very simple moments — especially one little bit more substantial at the end — it becomes a powerful tool for displaying and framing the production of 'Giselle' and the story that we're all familiar with."

The opening-night ballerina in Wellington, New Zealand — and Los Angeles —is a familiar face to local ballet aficionados: American Ballet Theatre principal Gillian Murphy. As Stiefel's fiancee, she has been dividing her time between two companies — and continents — since he took the position. Despite the many roles Murphy's performed in 17 years with ABT, dancing Giselle was a new experience. ABT has always cast her as Myrtha, the powerful, implacable queen of the Wilis.

"I always felt I would do this role at some point. I wasn't worried about rushing into it. I knew how iconic a role it is, and that the ballet had the power to really transport me," Murphy said.

"It was an amazing experience to have the luxury of really focusing on one role, day in and day out, for a month and a half. That's not something I'm used to with ABT."

Murphy delved into research, reading about various interpretations and watching films of long-ago Giselles.

Stiefel and Kobborg both say they've been able to avoid the potential pitfalls of collaboration, and both speak eagerly of future projects.

"If we were good friends before, we became even closer friends," said Kobborg. "Obviously, we both are strong-minded. But we didn't have a single argument."

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