The dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer is one held by quite a few children, once they first witness the seemingly effortless grace with which these athletes glide across the floor.
From Mikhail Baryshnikov to Margot Fonteyn, storied names have spirited audiences away to a world of music and fantasy over the years, and now, a new generation has taken up the mantle.
One such bright star in the ballet firmament is Gabe Stone Shayer, currently a resident artist at Palm Heights Hotel in Cayman and a fast-emerging celebrity in the international dance community.
The first African-American male dancer to graduate from the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, 27-year-old Shayer is making waves on the scene, thanks to a combination of talent, personal drive and boundless creativity. His recent artist collaboration and docuseries, titled ‘Pas de Deux’, sponsored by Chanel and featured in Vogue magazine, is a reason among many to make Shayer one to watch.
The Cayman Compass got the chance to sit down with Shayer at Tillies, the beach restaurant at Palm Heights, to talk about how he chose this career, and what exciting projects he has planned in the coming months. We also went with him on a visit to Dreamchasers Cayman, a local dance studio with big dreams of its own.
Shayer was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to an artist and psychologist mother and lawyer father. Thanks to his mother’s interests and pursuits, he was taken to art openings and the ballet from a young age. His first introduction to ‘The Nutcracker’ was when he was only 6 years old.
Dance classes ensued, but it was a visit of the Bolshoi to Philadelphia and their performance of ‘Spartacus’ that really made an impression on Shayer. “It was tremendously inspirational for me,” he said, stating that he came away from that experience with the impetus he needed to take the next step.
He began his formal training at age 9. For the next few years, he advanced through his classes and, according to his bio, when he was 13, he was offered the lead role in the world premiere of the modern ballet, ‘Darfur’, as a guest principal with the Rebecca Davis Dance Company.
From there, he attended a summer workshop with the Bolshoi in New York when he was 14, and at the end of the training, the director came to watch the last week, as well as a performance, and she invited Shayer to join the Bolshoi in Moscow.
You might think that being that young, he would have been tentative or nervous about travelling so far from home, but quite the contrary.
“I was excited,” he said. “I was one of those kids who would jump out a second-storey window and see if I could land like a gymnast. I loved challenging myself, and moving to another country was an amazing opportunity.”
There were language and cultural barriers, but he looks back on it as one of the most incredible experiences of his life. Over two-and-a-half years, he not only excelled at dance – he also learned to speak, read and write Russian fluently.
When Shayer finally returned to the US, not yet 17, he joined the American Ballet Theatre second company, and, a few months later, the main company.
Shayer graduating the Bolshoi was an historical moment. As the first African-American male dancer coming out of the academy in its nearly 250-year history, he was getting noticed.
Although now based in New York, performing in the Metropolitan Opera House with the ABT, he had the opportunity to tour in exotic locales like Italy and Greece.
Stating that he is a fan of both classic and modern ballet (“50/50”), Shayer appreciates new twists on the familiar, such as the all-male version of ‘Swan Lake’ by Matthew Bournes, which debuted in London in 1995.
“Matthew Bournes mind is amazing, and his comedic timing is hilarious… it’s just a different kind of endeavour for an artist to do that, then it is to do a classical ballet.”
He is happy to work outside of the box and explore new ways to express himself through movement. You might say he’s consistently jumping out of that second-storey window and landing differently every time.
When the coronavirus swept the world in early 2020, it had a devastating impact on many industries, including the theatre and performing arts. Broadway and the West End went dark, putting thousands of actors out of work.
Rather than resting on his laurels, Shayer saw the break as an opportunity to be creative.
“I was not deterred, because I thrive off of challenges,” he said. “Ballet is a constant challenge… navigating one’s emotions through art is a constant challenge, so, figuring it out after the initial shutdown of everything in the first two weeks… I caught the bug to do something; to create something that I’m very passionate about [through] collaboration.”
His dance company wasn’t doing much at the time, and so Shayer came up with the idea of creating a web series, where artists would collaborate with dancers. It would be a marriage of dance and pop culture that would hopefully bring in “different audiences that wouldn’t necessarily come to the ballet or think that these two mediums would mix”, he explained.
Shayer wanted a fashion element included, and when he and the ABT approached Chanel, the legendary house announced that it wanted to fund the entire project. Not too shabby.
‘Pas de Deux’ (translation: ‘Step of Two’) was launched on 29 Oct. 2020, with four episodes featuring principal dancer Isabella Boylston with Red Rooster chef Marcus Samuelsson; principal dancer Cassandra Trenary with artist Kat Sullivan; soloist Luciana Paris with artist Chloe Wise, and Shayer with Alicia Keys.
For the fourth episode, Shayer reached out to a contact of his – the owner of Live Nation – to see if Alicia Keys would get on board. The answer was a resounding “yes”.
“She was amazing,” he said. “She said it sounded amazing and said ‘I really want to do this’… she was very humble, tremendously gracious.”
Stories about the series popped up on numerous online magazine sites, including Architectural Digest, Pointe Magazine and Vogue. It garnered thousands of views, gaining the newly-promoted soloist (Shayer’s promotion at ABT was announced in September 2020) further accolades.
Shayer had never visited the Cayman Islands prior to this in-house residency at Palm Heights Hotel. Had it not been for COVID, he probably wouldn’t have had the time to make it happen.
He said he connected with a dancer from the San Francisco Ballet, who was childhood friends with the person in charge of resident artist programming at Palm Heights.
“She said, ‘There might be this thing in the Cayman Islands’, and I said ‘Yes!’,” he laughed, adding that she told him more about it, and he said, “‘Yes!’ again.”
He was excited to come down here and see what he could do with the experience, including teaching some classes, learning about the local culture and meeting Caymanian artists with whom he could collaborate.
The second night he was out of quarantine, he met artist John Reno, who subsequently introduced him to other people. Finding his feet was relatively painless, thanks to the eagerness of others to show him around.
Since being here, he has done some teaching; choreographed and danced pieces for select Tillies’ themed nights; talked with young dancers at Dreamchasers Cayman; and worked with a local cinematographer on a dance short about sustainable fashion and “the strength it takes to be graceful”, blurring the lines between femininity and masculinity.
An interview with the dancer and the premiere of his video was published in Vogue Italia on 19 April.
On 24 April, the Compass accompanied Shayer on his visit to the Dreamchasers Cayman studio, located in Kings Sports Centre.
Artistic director Melisha McField was putting her young students through their paces when Shayer arrived and, although the children were shy at first, they began to open up as he spoke to them about his experiences as a dancer.
The moment they really got lively, however, was when senior student and vice-captain Michael Rhoden offered to show Shayer a twist on some dancehall reggae moves. The music went on, Rhoden started things off, then Shayer joined in, matching him move-for-move. The kids went crackers.
Next up was Kassiedy Davis Quintero, also a senior student and captain. She showed Shayer some of the routines the class had been working on as he entered the studio. Again, the room ate it up.
After that, the questions from the floor came thick and fast, and he obligingly answered every one of them, also casually adding that he worked with celebrated principal dancer Misty Copeland, who is also with the ABT. Eyes went wide over that big reveal.
At the end of the session, Shayer talked to the children about people of colour still fighting for prominence in the world of ballet, and he encouraged them to keep following their passions.
The class presented him with a bag of gifts, and he had them record a video greeting to Copeland, with a promise of a response at some point.
“It was amazing to have a dancer of his calibre in the studio,” McField said. “He made a huge impact on the children and they loved interacting with him. I really hope he comes back to see us again in the future.”
Fourth and fifth position?
Shayer will be departing Cayman later this month and is already working on his next project: A book about identity in 10 essays. He is also booked to perform in London in 2022. No rest for the wicked… or the ambitious.
He emphasised how grateful he has been to Palm Heights for giving him the opportunity to be here. “I’ve been afforded a lot of accommodations,” he said, “and I’ve felt invited into a family… an artist commune.”
At 27, Shayer still has a lot of dance in him.
“The top of the hill, before you start descending, is around 37-42 [years old],” Shayer said, when asked about the peak age for a male dancer.
Imagine what he’ll accomplish in the next 10 years.
Although Shayer respects the likes of Baryshnikov and Rudolph Nureyev as artists, his self-assured manner leads him to look to himself, and what he hopes will be “future Gabe”. He is not boastful or arrogant, he is simply confident and very comfortable in his own skin, with the desire to develop his unique style. Based on what we saw at the Dreamchasers studio that day, his attitude makes him an excellent role model for students.
Here’s hoping he’ll be back to visit Cayman sometime soon, but no matter what, he will definitely be leaving a lasting impression here.