Romance in Dance: Seven Personal Pas de Deux
Young dancers might dream of dancing Juliet to their lover’s Romeo or traipsing the world together on tour. But what happens when that fantasy becomes reality? Seven couples—some in long-term pairings and some in the early throes of passion, some who dance together and some who don’t— describe what it’s like to juggle the professional and the personal, onstage and off.
By Astrida Woods
When Gillian Murphy met Ethan Stiefel, they were at opposite ends of American Ballet Theatre’s roster. She, at 18, was new in the corps de ballet, and he, at 24, was a principal dancer and ABT’s newest star. The first year they were just friends who hung out in a group in which she was often the only girl among five guys. Stiefel says, “It was a loose, fun camaraderie where there were no levels of rank.” Within a year, the friendship had turned to romance.
Since they’ve been together—nearly seven years—she progressed from corps to soloist in 1999 and to principal dancer in 2002. Murphy says that Stiefel “inspires me to be better and grow as an artist.”
“For me,” Stiefel says, “it’s rewarding to share my life with her and watch her career happen.” Together they are a power couple—and two of the few Americans in ABT’s top ranks—that the public flocks to see perform.
Last season their Swan Lake shimmered with feeling. “The white acts are so vulnerable,” says Murphy. “They are especially meaningful when danced with the man I love.” Another ballet they dance together is La Fille mal gardée. The lead roles, Lise and Colas, are “so silly and romantic,” says Murphy, “that we feel completely like ourselves.”
Both Stiefel and Murphy possess ideal physiques and sublime musicality. They had great facility at an early age and, in their early teens, garnered numerous competition awards and grants.
Murphy was born in Wimbledon, England, but was raised in South Carolina, where she started classes at age 5 and trained and performed with Columbia City Ballet. In 1996, after graduating from North Carolina School of the Arts, where former New York City Ballet star Melissa Hayden cast her in principal roles in Balanchine ballets like Concerto Barocco, she joined ABT.
Stiefel, who was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, started dancing at 8. After training at Milwaukee Ballet School and Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, he moved to New York City to study on scholarship at the School of American Ballet. At 16, he joined New York City Ballet. Three years later he did a one-year stint with the Zurich Ballet, then returned to NYCB as a soloist, becoming a principal in 1995. Two years later he signed on with ABT.
The couple shares an unmistakable bond, finishing each other’s sentences and often deferring to one another. But they are also strong, independent, and refreshingly candid.
Murphy, a delicate beauty with deep-set, sapphire-blue eyes, is serene and smart, with a strong sense of herself. “Gillian is one of the most direct and brutally honest people I’ve ever met—which was one of her attractions—apart from the obvious,” says Stiefel. She is also courageous. Early in their relationship, Murphy joined him on a three-week, cross-country trek on the back of his Harley Davidson. “It was the first time she had ever been on a motorcycle—ever! It was day one of 3,000 miles,” Stiefel says.
What impresses Murphy is Stiefel’s leadership quality. After he delivered an impassioned speech to the dancers’ union, some of the dancers began calling him “General.” A natural clown, he also makes his girlfriend laugh. “We can be really silly and romantic,” says Murphy, “but we both have a dramatic and more thoughtful side too.”
They’ve had their ups and downs, mostly during and after Stiefel’s work on the feature film Center Stage; the long hours of filming arduous dance sequences depleted his usually boundless energy. And Murphy, then 19, suffered bouts of jealousy whenever Stiefel rehearsed or filmed steamy love scenes with his co-star, San Francisco Ballet’s Amanda Schull. He tried to be reassuring, Stiefel says, but “it ruined her day.” By the time they attended the movie premiere together, in April 2000, she was long over it.
Much harder to deal with was the aftermath of Stiefel’s success. His commitments to ABT, Center Stage, and guest gigs that poured in from all over the world took a toll on Stiefel’s health. He came down with the flu, but continued to perform. The flu gave way to mononucleosis and finally chronic fatigue syndrome, which sidelined him for several months.
As Murphy and Stiefel rehearse William Forsythe’s idiosyncratic workwithinwork, it’s clear that they each have their own perspective on how to get the job done. Watching Murphy assimilate style, process corrections, and absorb dramatic interpretation suggests that her mind works like a computer—efficient and effective. She knows what she needs to accomplish at every rehearsal—and does.
Stiefel, on the other hand, appears laid back, but he instantly programs Forsythe’s stretched and skewed moves into his body. He doesn’t merely adapt a style; he adopts it wholesale. In the next rehearsal, Stiefel instinctively morphs into the knock-kneed, hunched puppet of Michel Fokine’s Petrouchka. Twyla Tharp once dubbed him “the dancer who can do it all—the perfect dancer.”
When things go wrong in a performance the couple tackles it objectively. “We are supportive and positive with each other,” says Stiefel. They analyze where and why it went wrong and fix the problem. “We are both perfectionists,” Stiefel says, “and we set the bar extremely high.”
Kevin McKenzie, ABT’s artistic director, says, “Gillian and Ethan are both such straightforward people. They’re unafraid to state their preferences but are always aware of the company’s needs first. They also are both extremely hard working, and it clearly pays off.”
They keep their personal lives separate from ballet. For downtime, whenever their hectic schedules permit, they escape to their country house in Pennsylvania, which Stiefel helped design and Murphy decorated. Or they visit their families, who’ve supported their careers from the beginning.
They both adore children and someday want their own, but for now they lavish love on Selah, their cat. These days their careers take up almost all their energy and time. This month Murphy starts filming the full-length Swan Lake with Angel Corella for PBS. And throughout 2005 their “dance card” is full.
They insist, however, that their relationship supersedes their careers. Murphy starts to say, “If I were to go back to the corps—”
“And I became a mechanic,” chimes in Stiefel, “our relationship would still be intact.”
Astrida Woods, a frequent DM contributor, is the dance editor and critic of Show Business Weekly and contributes to Hamptons, Country, and Oprah.
Team Spirit in Brooklyn
By Allan Ulrich
Caught between rehearsals during a recent Berkeley visit, Lauren Grant recalls the first time she laid eyes on David Leventhal. “I was ushering at the Joyce during Altogether Different, where he was dancing with Neta Pulvermacher and Zvi Gotheiner, and I was sizing him up. ‘Who is this guy? He’s cute,’ I thought.”
She’s not quite that detached any longer; he’s been sized up—and more. After six years together, Grant and Leventhal, veteran members of the Mark Morris Dance Group, are engaged to be married in April. He’s 31, a son of Newton, MA, a childhood ice skater, a graduate of Brown University, and a former member of José Mateo’s Ballet Theatre in Boston. She’s 30, a native of Highland Park, IL, who took up ballet at 3 and graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. The pair will wed in New York during a week off from performing, in hopes that all their colleagues can attend. When they joined MMDG full-time in 1998, they soon became the only couple in the company. Now, in addition to performing, they teach at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn and have recently started directing rehearsals of repertory works. They have found their personal and professional lives a comfortable fit. Most of the time.
Teamwork prevails. The rapport you see when Grant and Leventhal dance Marie and the prince in Morris’ Hard Nut (their most complex stage partnership) dominates the conversation. It goes like this.
“Lauren is a great ballet teacher,” Leventhal says. “She has a really good eye, which is valuable especially when we’re partnering together. She not only feels what isn’t right, but she can diagnose what’s not happening. I’m much more intuitive about these things.”
Retorts Grant: “But, David, you have a lovely way of communicating verbally what you’d like from your students.”
Notes Leventhal: “The real way we help each other is emotionally. There’s a support system we have set up, and that’s more important than the detailed eye. What’s involved is the emotional reassurance we can give each other, because we know what’s happened during the day, because we’ve been there.”
Adds Grant: “We can also freely communicate with each other if something is not working. If it’s a problem with a colleague, you’re always afraid of hurting their feelings. But David and I can just go there.”
The pair never confuses real life with performance. However, in The Hard Nut, Grant says, “I think we brought a depth to those roles that was not there before. We allow ourselves to love onstage, and an audience can sense that.”
“We’re so keyed into each other,” Leventhal notes. “I don’t know if it shows, but it certainly makes it more enjoyable to dance, and more relaxing, too.”
Yes, the couple also knows about the downside.
“If we have had an argument or a bad day, it’s hard to get rid of that onstage. Fortunately,” Leventhal says, smiling at his fiancée across the room, “that doesn’t happen too often.”
Interestingly, Morris’ choreography, Leventhal observes, does not encourage temperamental outbursts. “Mark’s work is not dance-theater, where you inflict your emotional problems on another person. It’s about structure, vocabulary, rhythm, quality of movement, rather than an imposed narrative. This choreography takes a lot of focus; there’s no room for brooding or pouting. We spend a lot of time not driving Mark crazy. But we never let work consume us.”
Problems arise periodically, like when Grant and Leventhal are on tour, which can extend to six months a year away from home. “Maybe, we see too much of each other. We’re addressing this issue now,” says Leventhal. “How do we maintain our own integrity? People are often surprised to hear we book separate hotel rooms, but it’s a way to give each other a bit of space.”
It seems a bit impertinent to ask if this relationship needs a license to endure. Yet, Grant and Leventhal have thought carefully before legalizing their pas de deux.
“When you invoke marriage,” says Leventhal, “you invoke a future together.”
Allan Ulrich is senior editor of DANCE MAGAZINE.
Boston’s Cuban Connection
By Thea Singer
It’s Act II of Boston Ballet’s Swan Lake, with Nelson Madrigal as Prince Siegfried and Lorna Feijóo as Odette. As Feijóo leans into him, Madrigal gently takes her arms and folds them across her body, wrapping her in his embrace as if she’s his gift. The nuance of the gesture is telling, as is the way Madrigal quietly rocks Feijóo afterward, his cheek glancing against hers.
Married in 2000, Madrigal, 27, and Feijóo, 30, have lived together for the past eight years and danced together for six. As the two nestle side-by-side on a couch, “cherishing” seems like an apt word to describe them, both on- and offstage—but it’s soon clear that laughter is just as important as love. Feijóo often runs away with the conversation, but Madrigal can bring it to a giggling halt with a joke or the translation of a too personal question into Spanish—for example, whether kissing Madrigal onstage is different from kissing other partners. “When I kiss him, it’s better for me,” Feijóo says.
“I need many women to kiss,” Madrigal deadpans.
Feijóo was 15 and Madrigal 12 when the two Boston Ballet principals crossed paths in the halls of Cuba’s National Ballet School. But it wasn’t until seven years later, in 1996, as members of Alicia Alonso’s Ballet Nacional de Cuba, that they first experienced the connection that electrifies audiences today when the couple dances.
“In class all the time, the eyes go together,” says Feijóo, punctuating the memory with a gentle rub to Madrigal’s thigh. “I think he’s sweet. Everybody in the company likes him. He says funny things all the time.”
Madrigal is more reticent. “She was untouchable for me,” he says almost bashfully. “Lorna was already a principal dancer. I never thought she would see me.”
But after their first “alone” date, they saw ever-increasing amounts of each other. In 1997, they set up house together for a year while under contract with the Zurich Opera House, doing the same when they returned to Cuba. In 2003, after spending two years at Cincinnati Ballet, they joined Boston Ballet, where they’ve also danced together in Lady of the Camellias and in Peter Martins’ new abstract ballet, Distant Light.
The benefits of cohabitation, they say, are many—from better chemistry and heightened drama onstage to personal coaching in classes to improved meals. “Everything she makes is the best,” says Madrigal, nearly smacking his lips at the thought of his wife’s cheesecake. And though Feijóo admits to increased jitters the first time the couple danced together because she wanted so much for Madrigal to do well (he was Siegfried in his first Swan Lake; she was Odette/Odile), they agree that when your life partner is your dance partner, you go the extra mile to make sure you both succeed.
Rehearsal, though, can be another story. Because they feel so safe with each other, criticisms can be brutally honest, with blame—for, say, a failed lift—replacing tact. And intimate scenes can be tougher to enact without the protection of the fourth wall. Still, the added rigor, they say, helps them improve their dancing in ways a more careful approach might not. “I trust him,” says Feijóo. “I know he’s going to tell me the truth.”
To cope with the stress, the couple has adopted a rule: If they “have a little fire,” as Feijóo puts it, they leave the disagreement in the studio. If that proves impossible, they allow themselves one hour to work things out. They try to forget ballet when they go home, limiting themselves to watching a new dance or going over a performance on video.
“It’s important to separate the work from the personal,” says Feijóo. “When you’re a couple, you have all your days together. It’s good for the relationship to have time to stay alone, time to not talk about the problems, time to kiss.”
Thea Singer is a Boston-based freelance writer specializing in the arts and science.
By Karen Hildebrand
The first time I saw Dormeshia was the day I got my first pair of tap shoes,” says Omar Edwards. It was 1989 and he was 13. Twelve-year-old Dormeshia Sumbry was dancing in the Broadway cast of Black and Blue, and Omar took the train nightly from Queens to hang around the show’s tap-dance stars, Jimmy Slyde and Buster Brown. From the night his aunt (Savion Glover’s mom) promised him that pair of shoes, his professional and personal passions have been intertwined.
While Sumbry-Edwards distinctly remembers Omar (who says he was “a nerd—this goofy guy with glasses”) from backstage at Black and Blue, the experience was not love at first sight. “I found out he had a crush on me, and whenever he was in the building I could have dug a hole to get away,” she says, laughing. But she didn’t ignore him completely. “I knew he wanted to dance. I could feel it.”
The two rhythm tappers, now both 29, make a handsome couple. Aside from shoulder-length dreads, Edwards dresses more like the dapper hoofers he was mentored by—sports jacket and trousers—than his rhythm tap contemporaries who favor the baggy hip hop look. Sumbry-Edwards is more reserved than her husband in manner, but speaks with a refreshing directness. Ask her a question and she gets right to the point, then lets Edwards fill in the details.
The two went separate ways after the original Black and Blue closed, and by the time their paths crossed again, Edwards had not only learned to tap but had won the grand prize on Ed McMahon’s Star Search as part of a duo called Toe Jamm. Friendship blossomed into love after Sumbry-Edwards was invited to join the cast of Glover’s Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk, which Edwards was dancing in. They were married in 1998.
Today, the couple rarely performs together. Though both are masters of rhythm tap, the form that emphasizes sound over visual style, they insist their work is quite different. “The people who approach him would not think of approaching me, and the other way around,” says Sumbry-Edwards, who began dancing at age 3 and now tours internationally with a variety of tap artists, including Lynn Dally’s Jazz Tap Ensemble and Savion Glover (see DM, May 2004, page 42). The differences were not readily apparent when the two jammed together last summer at the New York City Tap Festival with friend and fellow Bring in ’Da Noise alumnus Jason Samuels Smith. The three traded improvised phrases with an intensity and bravado that appeared entirely equal. But according to Edwards, his wife’s skills are more highly developed than his. “I’m proud to say I don’t dance with Dormeshia. I think I would hold her back.”
He calls her a psychotic technician. “Savion will choreograph something that’s pretty hard for your brain, and she’ll suck it up like it’s nothing. My wife is a dancer to the soul.” As for himself, Edwards says, “I want to be a musician with my dancing, a straight-up soloist musician. Currently he hosts the Sunday jam session at Manhattan’s Swing 46, where he took over for the late Buster Brown.
The fact that they don’t compete for the same jobs makes it easier to share the rearing of their children, Jeremiah, 5, and Eboni, 4. They seem equally at ease with parenting—a spilled water glass is cause for gentle teasing rather than raised voices. They often rely on strong family ties for help—her mother in Indiana, his grandmother in New York.
Mention professional envy to the Edwardses and you’ll get genuine surprise in response. They’re not strangers to conflict, however. “I used to think that arguing meant she wanted out,” says Edwards. “Now I understand that she’s really just saying ‘clean the toilet,’ not asking for a divorce.” They’ve also had to adjust to the hills and valleys of freelance life after the Broadway roles (and regular paychecks) they cut their teeth on.
“I used to panic a lot. I’m not that way anymore. I learned that from my wife. She’s a very calm person,” Edwards says. Add to the mix a healthy dose of faith, and you begin to understand the couple’s success formula. “The glue of the whole situation is praying—God,” says Edwards. “Everyone’s going to go through problems. The problem for people who don’t pray is their trouble is going to be bigger. Our future is dependent on our faith.”
Karen Hildebrand is DM’s education editor.