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This Ballet Superstar is Making a Dance About Space Travel for the JFK Centennial

5 questions with former American Ballet Theatre principal Ethan Stiefel on his new project for the Washington Ballet.
Stiefel rehearsing Royal New Zealand Ballet dancers in Giselle. Photo by Stephen A'Court, courtesy of RNZB

Given his career as a top dancer for one of the world’s top companies, followed by directing the University of North Carolina School of the Arts’ dance department and then the Royal New Zealand Ballet, you’d think Ethan Stiefel would tire of being known for his role as the bad-boy heartthrob in the 2000 teen dance flick Center Stage. Then he tells you he conceptualized his new ballet about John F. Kennedy and the space program while riding a motorcycle across the country and you have to wonder, does he enjoy this as much as we do?

Commissioned by Julie Kent—Stiefel’s longtime colleague in American Ballet Theatre’s top ranks and the successor to Septime Webre at the helm of the Washington Ballet—the piece for roughly a dozen dancers, tentatively titled Frontier, premieres in May on a mixed bill at the Kennedy Center, as the city celebrates JFK’s 100th birthday.

Which came first, the idea for a JFK ballet, or the commission from the Washington Ballet?

Julie spoke to me in June and mentioned that she’d like me to create a new ballet for the company and that she wanted it to be connected in some way to JFK because of the centennial celebration. I was flattered and excited but I also said, Wow, I need some time to think of how to go about this because that’s big.

I could have gone into civil rights, I could have gone into the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs. I toyed with doing something to do with the arts, but then I thought, this is ballet. This is an art, so we’re actually already speaking to that legacy. Space is very much connected to the legacy of JFK and seems to be as relevant today as it ever has been.

How so?

President Obama just reaffirmed his commitment to placing people on Mars in the near future. There’s Virgin Galactic, SpaceX—various companies that are looking to begin civilian suborbital space travel. It’s a topic that has fascinated people for many years. I thought it would be great to try and put forward as a ballet.

Will there be a JFK character?

No, it’s about celebrating space travel and the program. Landing a man on the moon was something JFK spoke about and initiated in terms of getting a nation, as well as funding, behind it. So it’s inspired by that energy and spirit of JFK. But it’s not going to be specific to any one event or person. I didn’t want to do JFK: The Ballet and create a documentary or historical ballet.

You weren’t even a little tempted to make a JFK ballet version of Hamilton?

I haven’t seen it. I suppose I’m lucky in that sense. When I was thinking about this and doing my reading and research, I was on a motorcycle by myself for 9,000 miles. I drove from the Northeast down to Santa Fe and then all the way up the rockies to Glacier National Park and then back through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I was disconnected, which was good. I had a lot of time to think while I had my head in a helmet for seven or eight hours a day. So no, I didn’t seek to be influenced by or emulate anything else.

So probably no dancers in astronaut suits then, either?

I think [the ballet] will incorporate some realistic elements. I’m working with a real spacesuit designer as my costume designer, from Final Frontier Design. I’m going to try to convey the emotional, intellectual, and physical rigors of being selected as an astronaut and then the emotions that are involved in the launch sequence and having millions of gallons of explosive strapped to you, and the sensations as one takes a step and explores another planet. 

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Editorial Fellow

Andrea is a fall 2016 editorial fellow at Washingtonian. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School in May and has written for Eater, Outside, and Vice. She lives in Bloomingdale.