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Another Midwestern male dancer on motorcycle

Ethan Stiefel's talent makes him above average

"I'm lucky with these feet," Ethan Stiefel says, looking down at arches that curve like commas. Stiefel is a dancer, perhaps the fastest-rising young man on the international scene. Those arches mean elegantly punctuated endings on long, stretched legs and a jump that starts with a superlative spring.

Still, instead of those feet, some of his fans might comment first on his cornflower blue eyes, his corn-colored hair, his cornfed, Midwestern, gee-whiz voice. Boston audiences will have the chance to experience all but the voice when the much-acclaimed 30-year-old guests in Boston Ballet's repertory program this week, his debut with the company.

Many, though, are already familiar with Stiefel's speaking voice, thanks to his star turn in the 2000 film "Center Stage" and, earlier this year, his appearance in public television's "Born to Be Wild: The Leading Men of American Ballet Theatre," the company where he's been a principal since 1997.

Stiefel came to dance via a route that's become an American classic: He tagged along when his sister began taking classes. It's a path very different from that of the other men in "Born to Be Wild." They were also born in other countries, and they describe growing up in state-supported systems, in schools and companies based in the entrenched traditions of a subsidized opera house.

Stiefel grew up in Wisconsin. "I represented about 50 percent of the male dancer population there," he jokes. "I didn't see real ballet until my family got a VCR," he says, adding that "I hadn't seen New York City Ballet before I joined it," which he did at 16. He'd attended City Ballet's feeder, the School of American Ballet, the summer before his father, who worked for the federal penal system, was transferred to New Jersey. Stiefel then enrolled full time at SAB. The family's daily routine began with a 4 a.m. wake-up call, then a drive into Manhattan, and wound down 12 hours later, when they began the trek home from the city. "We were just too tired to go to performances," Stiefel recalls.

Part of his grueling teenage day was spent at SAB, and another at Professional Children's School. "I can't believe I lived like that," he says. "Now, waking up at 8 is a major achievement."

Out of the mold

In "Born to Be Wild" Stiefel first appears on a motorcycle, and his first words are "The single best thing about being a [male] ballet dancer is you get to work with women all day, and it's hands on -- and they're pretty fit."

Documentaries on male ballet dancers often go out of their way to emphasize that they're not all gay. Do those well-intentioned programs try too hard?

"No," Stiefel says during a rehearsal break in Boston Ballet's South End studios. "The stereotype of the male dancer is still there. Some dancers in our company have been attacked in the streets. Friends I go motorcycling with say, `So you dance around posies?' That's not being beaten up, but it's only a few steps away. We haven't come as far as we might have thought."

Stiefel has had a relationship with fellow ABT principal Gillian Murphy for the last five years, but that doesn't mean he gets to dance with her often. ABT director Kevin McKenzie isn't one for regular partnerships a la Nureyev and Fonteyn.

In Boston this week, Stiefel partners two principal women in two works by Balanchine: Larissa Ponomarenko in the 1981 version of "Mozartiana," and Sarah Lamb in the 1958 "Stars and Stripes."

The moods of "Mozartiana," the choreographer's tribute to Tchaikovsky's tribute to Mozart, shift from prayerful to playful; "Stars and Stripes," set to Sousa marches, is rife with flag waving and baton twirling, all the cliches of patriotism. ("Calculated vulgarity is a useful ingredient," Balanchine once said.)

Ballet partnerships can succeed because the dancers are either strikingly dissimilar -- or very much alike. It's the latter in the case of Stiefel's Boston gig. When he says, "Physically I'm light, streamlined, and small-boned," he could be describing his Boston Ballet partners as well.

Rehearsing "Mozartiana" with Ponomarenko the other day, the two seemed to be stifling giggles. Stiefel's a cutup, imitating pointe work and coming off as the class clown who would have even the teacher laughing.

Other dancers might not have such a good time in a similar situation. "Mozartiana" is a complex ballet, one Stiefel hasn't danced before. He learned it in a single week in September, a feat comparable to memorizing a Shakespeare play and having it Stratford-ready in the same amount of time.

"So the next time you see each other is onstage?" their coach, Trinidad Vives, asks. They nod.

Condensed rehearsal times are just part of his scheduling difficulties. The beginning of Boston Ballet's season coincides with the beginning of American Ballet Theatre's at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and ABT is, after all, Stiefel's home company.

He's not home much. This year he's filmed Ashton's "The Dream" in California; done a run of "Don Quixote" in Verona, Italy; appeared before the cameras again in a Washington Opera production of "Die Fledermaus"; and danced in a gala in Budapest. In December, he's off to Tokyo.

"Galas are good for the bank and the exposure, but not for artistry," he acknowledges.

On the bank: "I have more money than I ever thought I would," he says. "But I'm not wealthy enough to binge shop. I do have a $20,000 motorcycle -- but that's the most expensive thing I own."

On the exposure: "You work to build the name, and then the name works for you." He wants to become as high-profile as possible to maximize the options when he faces retirement from performing. "When I'm around 35 it will become clear what kind of longevity I have as a dancer. I'd like to stay in dance -- maybe coach or direct. Choreography hasn't hit me yet. I don't have the passion to make dances. The worst thing is when you choreograph just to survive. And that's what you get -- survival choreography. And then the audience has to survive it."

Raising his profile

While Stiefel is becoming increasingly well known, the reality is that there is only one name in ballet that is still surefire at the box office -- Mikhail Baryshnikov, even though he's a quarter-century older.

Ethan Stiefel and Stars is a touring ensemble the younger dancer formed a year and a half ago to spread the word about himself and his colleagues. "American dancers need exposure to other American dancers to see what's possible here," he says, "that it's not all dependent on that foreign mystique. A `Stars of the Bolshoi' sells out on name recognition, even if they're not stars."

He describes his group as dance missionaries, bringing ballet to the boonies -- and the not quite boonies: The Stars perform in Hartford early in 2004.

The model for this kind of maverick off-season operation was created nearly a century ago, when Serge Diaghilev first presented Nijinsky, Pavlova, and other Russian dancers in Paris. The Ballets Russes was a huge hit. Among other things, it gave Balanchine early opportunities to make dances. Balanchine migrated to the US and eventually cofounded the New York City Ballet -- which was where Stiefel's career began. He's already part of ballet's history -- and eager to add a chapter to it.

"I keep getting invited places," he says ingenuously, "like the Maryinsky," the St. Petersburg theater where Balanchine, Nijinsky, and Pavlova all got their start.

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