Questions and answers
The Philadelphia native was recently promoted to soloist with American Ballet Theatre, one of the most distinguished ballet companies in the world.
Classical ballet dancer Gabe Stone Shayer grew up in Center City, dreaming of traveling the world. “I loved walking the boardwalk and reading all the different flags,” he says, “I would go to the free library and always check out a different language book for the kids.”
Shayer attended kindergarten at the Philadelphia School in Fitler Square and then Albert M. Greenfield Elementary and High School a few blocks from Chestnut Street. While in Greenfield, he attended three evening dance schools: the Koresh School of Dance, Gwendolyn Bye, and the Philadelphia Dance Company. At age 12, Shayer transferred to Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in order to attend Rock School for Dance Education full-time.
At 14, he finally realized his childhood dream of living abroad. He moved to Moscow, Russia, to divide his time between The Rock and the famous Bolshoi Ballet Academy – an institute older than the United States itself – before settling there full-time. At the Bolshoi, he was the first black dancer to participate in the program and the first black dancer to graduate at the top of his class.
Now 26 and a semi-converted New Yorker, Shayer was recently promoted from body dancer to soloist at the prestigious American Ballet Theater after 9 years. The American Ballet Theater (ABT for short) is one of the world’s most distinguished ballet companies and the official national ballet company of the United States. The organization currently has around 90 dancers from around the world. The company hails from Shanghai to Buenos Aires, to Lexington, Kentucky to New York, New York and of course, Philadelphia. Shayer is ABT’s only current dancer who was born and raised in Philadelphia and attended dance schools here — and one of its few black dancers.
Shayer’s work routine and career were cut short due to the pandemic. As a dancer who performs for a living at ABT, a company that usually does for 300,000 people a year, the change of pace and lack of performance was extreme. Seven months ago, a normal day for Shayer consisted of waking up around 7 a.m., going to class soon after and ending his day around 7 p.m. And then it started all over again. This busy schedule changed everything when the pandemic hit. But Shayer had gotten used to the stop and start of the dance – he had been injured a few years before, so he had developed patience.
“I knew I would be back, but it was going to be a long recovery, so I had to think on my feet – pun intended – and come up with alternatives that would take my time, keep me inspired, charge me and keep me creating in some degree,” he says.
During the pandemic, Shayer has prioritized restorative activities: sleeping and resting. But he also maintained his physique – a necessity for a dancer. He started doing simple exercises, including strengthening his calves and feet, and jogging to get back into a more active routine. He began to meditate. He began thinking about ways ABT could continue to create and share line dancing, while “preserving the integrity of classical ballet and live performance”.
Shayer has given a lot of thought to racing this summer, as has the rest of the country and the world. He was adopted at birth. Her mother is blonde and blue-eyed; his brother is his mother’s biological son. He was partly raised by his Ghanaian grandmother, who was originally the family’s nanny. Gabe became extremely close to her – he would travel to Ohio, where her children lived, to stay with them for periods. She became a powerful influence on him and considered her his grandmother. Shayer’s mother still lives in her childhood home and her brother also lives in Philadelphia. He still misses Philly, he says. He misses the Caribbean food trucks across from 30th Street Station and his favorite event, the Odunde Festivalwhich usually happens in the middle of its season.
Although he’s always had a nuanced understanding of race, which he attributes to his family’s mixed background, Shayer was aware that when he came out into the world he was considered a black man. At dance competitions, people sometimes undermined his claim that he was a classical ballet dancer and would one day join a classical ballet company. Although Shayer says he did not experience overt racism during his time in Russia, he was aware of the importance of being the first black dancer at the Bolshoi. When he first joined ABT, he says he was typecast, cast mostly in contemporary roles, or often as a creature and/or villain. Shayer’s dream roles were heroes and lovers: Spartacus, Des Grieuxor any prince.
Her promotion in September as an ABT soloist, particularly after the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, gave her new energy and perspective. “I’m going in the right direction,” he says, “to dispel any stereotypes or stigma against black men, against black men in ballet.” However, Shayer has not always been so vocal in dismantling these narratives. “At first, I wanted to do it just by existing,” he says. I now realize that I have to promote it and talk about it so that it is visible to young people like me,” he says. He wonders how the current BLM discourse can have real impacts on stage, but only time will tell. For now, he wants to do whatever he can to make an impact as one of the few professional black classical ballet dancers at the height of his career.
It turns out that Shayer will have a new kind of impact with his upcoming debut on the virtual stage. ABT’s fall season was originally scheduled to run from October 21 to November 1, 2020, but on October 1, the company announced its cancellation. Instead, they debut”Autumn @ ABT”, a digitally distributed ballet program filmed in COVID-secured “ballet bubbles” in New York – just like the NBA. Choreographers and dancers, including Shayer, participated in month-long residencies where they designed and perfected their performances. The final result will be released to virtual audiences around the world this fall, with a launch during the 80th Anniversary Fall Gala Celebration on November 18 on Youtube.
For a closer look at ABT’s virtual programming, and the joy and resilience of these new virtual ballet efforts, visit their website.