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A Dance of Life : ‘Wake-Up Call’ Forces Joffrey Star to Redirect Priorities

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NEWSDAY

He was short for a ballet dancer, but he was determined, and by the time he was 18, Edward Stierle had a job at the Joffrey Ballet.

Once aboard at the Joffrey, Stierle, all 5-feet, 6-inches of him, proceeded to knock everyone’s socks off. His body was muscular yet packed with musicality, and he seemed able to jump far above his height.

Dancing with Tina LeBlanc, one of his favorite partners, in “La Vivandiere Pas de Six,” his ebullient flights through the air resolved themselves in precise landings. As Puck in Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream,” Stierle wove a shimmering, magical skein of leaps and spins. In “The Green Table,” Stierle’s Profiteer was intrinsic to Kurt Jooss’ classic picture of war’s corruption. In a company filled with fine performers, Stierle made himself a standout.

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Then, four years ago, Edward Stierle learned that he was HIV-positive. Three months ago, he was diagnosed as having AIDS.

“It changed my life,” Stierle, 22, said of his HIV status recently at the Joffrey’s East Coast headquarters. “It changed my life dramatically, but it didn’t ruin it. I didn’t just crumble. In actuality, I started living more.”

In 1988, he began to choreograph; two of his works will be presented during the company’s three-week season that began last week at Lincoln Center. One of them, “Lacrymosa,” choreographed just after he had learned that he was HIV-positive, is about death. But his new work, “Empyrean Dances,” is about life, he said, and will have its premiere tonight. It will share the spotlight during the company’s four-week run at the Music Center that begins in May.

Stierle’s illness has caused him to be short of stamina and he has had to give up dancing. But he spoke brightly, and if his voice occasionally faltered or he cleared his throat, the light never went out of his eyes. Sometimes, he said, he has “a bad day,” but he tries “not to get stuck.”

As for the AIDS, he said, “This is a tiny part of me. It bothers me that so many people make it so big. They give it so much power. The mind set, if you want to stay well, is you are bigger than it, you have the power. And if you give it all that power, then forget it, you are doomed.”

That is one of the reasons he has chosen candor, he said. “It takes up so much energy to lie.”

When Stierle disclosed his illness to the Joffrey company this year, he found that everyone was “so supportive,” and there was no fear or ostracism. “They’re educated people,” he said of his colleagues.

Each day, in addition to working with the dancers on his own ballets, he mentally goes over “all my roles, so that when I have the strength in my lungs to go back in, I’ll be ready.” He hopes that he may be able to dance his Profiteer role in “The Green Table,” his favorite of the repertory, during the last week of the season. In the meantime, he said, “I have 18 dancers in my new ballet, and I have 13 in ‘Lacrymosa’ dancing for me.”

Stierle’s “wake-up call,” as he put it, has forced him to redirect his life, but he is no less determined to succeed in his new directions than before. “I think anybody dealing with a potentially terminal illness learns what’s important really quickly,” Stierle said.

Today, what’s important to him is being noticed as Eddie Stierle, a human being of many parts.

He is a dancer who is teaching his roles to others and who hopes that he will regain his breath capacity so he can take class and perform again. The hardest thing, he said, “is that I’m not dancing.”

He is a choreographer whose new work, “Empyrean Dances,” emerged after a close study of the score and was created with the aid of color-coded patterns on paper. “I love circular patterns, waterfall kind of patterns, like Jiri Kylian’s,” who, with William Forsythe, is one of his favorite choreographers.

Three years ago, Stierle turned for the first time to choreography, making “Lacrymosa d'Amore,” set to Mozart. Revised as “Lacrymosa” last year, the work had its Joffrey Ballet premiere, and it was dedicated to the memory of Joffrey, who died in 1988 after a long illness.

Stierle had always seen his dancing as “a service to whatever we see as God”; now, he saw choreography from the same perspective.

“In a lot of ways, ‘Lacrymosa’ was about me. It was not coming from a mental place,” Stierle said, pointing to his blue-bandannaed head, “but from a real deep soul place.”

Besides “Lacrymosa,” Stierle has choreographed “Empyrean Dances” to a score by Howard Hanson. It will premiere at a gala tonight, along with the premieres of Christopher d'Amboise’s “Runaway Train” and Charles Moulton’s “Panoramogram.”

Both “Lacrymosa” and “Empyrean Dances” “are quite spiritual,” Stierle said. But while “Lacrymosa” is about dealing with death, he said, “ ‘Empyrean Dances’ focuses on life.”

“Empyrean Dances” is “set in a destroyed place,” Stierle said. Its backdrop is a wall that has been knocked down, and there are fragments of sculptures on the stage. “The dancers complete these sculptures and create new shapes from the shapes that are already there. These people are in this destroyed place, and they are rebuilding it with their spirit.”


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