One of Gabe Stone Shayer's favorite collaborations happened thanks to his agent, Henri Lemic. In August 2019, Shayer—frustrated after being passed over yet again for a promotion at American Ballet Theatre—started to think about the company's fall gala. He wanted to make a defiant sartorial splash on the red carpet. Lemic worked some magic, persuading Harlem couturier Dapper Dan to meet with his young client.
At the meeting, Shayer said the ballet world seemed unable to envision him, a Black man, as a prince. "I'm going to make you look like a king," Dapper Dan told him. Referencing photos of African royalty, the designer created a sweeping gold jacket, dubbed the "King Coat." Shayer wore it to the gala—thumbing his nose, in the most elegant way, at the ballet establishment. "I was finally a prince, and not with a tunic made in Germany, but with a coat made in Harlem that represented my African heritage," he says. "And my story is a Black story that might not have gotten to Dapper Dan, if it wasn't for Henri."
Here's the thing: There is no Henri. Or, rather, "Henri Lemic" is Shayer, under a different email address.
That gutsy display of determination is of a piece with Shayer's ballet career. A Russian-trained virtuoso with eye-popping extensions, the 27-year-old projects boundless confidence onstage. He has big, innovative ideas about the way ballets should be danced and created, and does not hesitate to argue for them. "Most ballet dancers, we're trying not to step on toes during rehearsals," says friend and ABT principal Cassandra Trenary. "But Gabe, he's fearless. He's always asking 'Why is it done this way?' He wants to push buttons until he believes in what he's doing."
Shayer's courage extends outside the studio. Long critical of ABT's treatment of him and its other Black members, and of the ballet world's racism writ large, he has become a prominent voice in dance's racial reckoning. "I still don't feel settled with it," he says. "And I won't be closing my mouth anytime soon."
Has he paid for his outspokenness? Despite a steady stream of featured roles, Shayer spent eight years in ABT's corps before his promotion to soloist in September. But now, with the new title, and fresh off a series of invigorating pandemic projects, he at last seems to be gaining momentum at ABT—and well beyond it.
Jayme Thornton for Pointe
From Philadelphia to Moscow
Shayer, who is adopted, grew up in Philadelphia with his white mother and Ghanaian grandmother. As a child, he was bewitched by the Bolshoi Ballet's touring production of Spartacus. "It had a huge impact on me, all this intense bravura dance coming right at you," he remembers.
After early training at the Gwendolyn Bye Dance Center, Koresh School of Dance and Philadanco's Philadelphia School of Dance Arts, Shayer formalized his ballet studies at The Rock School. As a teen, he began attending ballet competitions—and experiencing race-based pigeonholing. "I would come offstage after performing a classical variation," he remembers, "and moms or judges would say things like 'Hey, you're amazing, are you thinking about Ailey?'"
Sensing that Black dancers didn't have a place in American ballet, he started to imagine a career abroad. One of his Rock School teachers pointed out his resemblance to Black, Cuban-born danseur Carlos Acosta, then a star of The Royal Ballet. "I saw Carlos seamlessly dancing Romeo and Basilio, these roles that people had thought of as white roles," Shayer says. "Without really processing it, I thought: The Royal has accepted Carlos. Maybe I can go to London and be the next Carlos?"
But in terms of technique, Shayer preferred the Russian style he'd been training in. "I've always felt like the Russian methodology is most logical for my body," he says. "It helps you lengthen, which I need, and I just love the way it looks." In 2009, after attending a Bolshoi Academy summer program, he was invited to attend the school year-round. He went instead for three months, then moved to Moscow in fall of 2010 and spent a transformative year immersed in Russian ballet culture.
Jayme Thornton for Pointe
Russia is far from an inclusive haven, yet at the Bolshoi, Shayer felt free of America's racial baggage. "People always get on me for saying this, but the Russians were very matter-of-fact about it: 'Okay, you're American, you're Black, we acknowledge it.' That's it," Shayer says. "It wasn't connected to perceptions of my work ethic or achievements." He found a mentor in teacher Ilya Kuznetsov. And Shayer experienced, in his words, "the best kind of culture shock": learning Russian, studying the Stanislavski acting method, embracing the Bolshoi's idiosyncratic traditions. In 2011, he became the first African-American male to graduate from the Bolshoi Academy.
Shayer assumed he'd dance professionally in Russia, or maybe London. But after graduation, he attended ABT's summer course, and ended up with an offer to join the Studio Company. Thrown, but recognizing the magnitude of the opportunity, he accepted. A few months later, he entered the main company.
It was a difficult transition. ABT's technique and way of working felt unfamiliar; he missed Russia. Nevertheless, Shayer kept getting remarkable opportunities, particularly in ballets by Alexei Ratmansky, ABT's resident choreographer and a former director of the Bolshoi Ballet. The two developed a rapport, communicating in Russian during rehearsals. "Gabe is very particular in his style of dancing—you can really tell it's him—and Ratmansky loves that," says ABT director of repertoire Carlos Lopez. "When you see Gabe perform Ratmansky's characters, you can see he feels at home there." Shayer danced Bluebird in Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty alongside Misty Copeland, and principal roles in the choreographer's Whipped Cream and Harlequinade. He seemed to be on an upward trajectory.
Shayer as Bluebird and Misty Copeland as Princess Florine in The Sleeping Beauty
Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT
Yet as the years passed and no promotion materialized, Shayer asked the artistic staff for answers. "First, I was met with technique things—work on this, work on that—and I was like, 'Great! I got it,'" he says. "One year it was: 'We don't have space at the soloist level for you.' And I thought, Okay, maybe it's a money issue. I couldn't figure out this weird disconnect, where I was being favored with these great parts, but then held back by title."
Toward the end of the company's 2018 Metropolitan Opera House season, Shayer says, the staff told him he hadn't made soloist because he had an attitude problem. "My brain exploded," he says. "It felt like I was being singled out in a way that wasn't substantialized by any truth." A week later, he tore his ACL onstage while dancing the principal part in Whipped Cream.
Shayer as the Golden Idol in La Bayadère
Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT
During the seven-month recovery period, Shayer "separated" from ballet entirely for a while, working intensively with trainers from the Philadelphia Eagles to regain his strength. Revitalized, he returned for ABT's 2019 season, during which he danced his usual roster of featured roles. Once again, he was not promoted. He began talking in earnest to friends abroad about job opportunities.
A few months later, the coronavirus shut down the ballet world, and then the murder of George Floyd convulsed it. Shayer, quarantining with his family in Long Beach Island, New Jersey, felt helpless. At the end of May, he taped his phone to the back of his mom's car and filmed a video of himself jogging at sunset, set to "Runnin'," by Naughty Boy, Beyoncé and Arrow Benjamin. He posted it to Instagram, captioned with a poem:
"I run with Maud!
I kneel with Kaepernick!
I stand for black lives!
I call for SUSTAINABLE TRANSFORMATION!..."
Distinctive and deeply felt, the post resonated throughout the ballet community. At ABT, Shayer and the company's six other Black dancers were called upon to share their perspectives in a series of internal diversity-and-inclusion Zoom meetings, a process both exasperating and empowering. "My colleagues and I have been vocalizing these issues for years, so for people to act like they were hearing them for the first time was frustrating," Shayer says. "But it gave us a platform to use and a way to be heard, which we hoped would spur action."
Shayer was becoming a leader. During the shutdown, he developed his creative voice in a series of projects, many of them self-directed. He taught ballet students in Ghana over Zoom, and secured their local teachers spots in ABT's National Training Curriculum. He worked with choreographer Sonya Tayeh, and created a duet for himself and Trenary, at the Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in upstate New York. (An excerpt of that work, titled The Ritual, premiered digitally on Lincoln Center at Home and ABT's YouTube channel on December 13.)
Jayme Thorton for Pointe
In August, Shayer tried his hand at artistic direction, launching the Creative Genesis program. He brought eight dancers (seven of them from ABT) to Long Beach Island and created a 30-minute ballet, while adhering to strict pandemic protocols. The project recently earned a Levinson Arts Achievement Award, a $50,000 prize.
Shayer's highest-profile quarantine enterprise, Pas De Deux, featured ABT dancers in conversation with stars from other areas of the artistic world. "My idea was to bring something new to ABT, to access different kinds of creativity," Shayer says. His segment with musician Alicia Keys included a probing discussion of race and identity, and a new dance set to Keys' "Love Looks Better." Shayer performed the self-choreographed work on the stage of Harlem's Apollo Theater. "I wanted to attach the collaboration to Alicia as a Black New Yorker," he says, "and also to create an image that would've helped young Gabe see himself as a prince. A Black man with his hair braided, doing ballet at the Apollo!"
Jayme Thornton for Pointe
ABT's administration recognized Shayer's pandemic-era growth. "With his strong sense of self, his artistic inclinations have flourished in this hardest of times," artistic director Kevin McKenzie says. As a soloist, Shayer hopes to dance more princely roles once COVID subsides, and to keep working toward principal-dancer status. Eventually, he sees himself dancing abroad. And his curiosity transcends ballet. "He is constantly in a state of discovery, whether it be fashion or visual art or music," Trenary says. "He's always sending me ideas—'Look at how incredible this Balmain smoking jacket is. I'm gonna own it one day!'—and then I'll find out he's manifested them into being."
Shayer says his larger goal is to put ballet on America's mainstream map, bringing it the level of visibility it enjoys in parts of Europe. One way to do that, he suggests, is to incorporate Black and African culture. Recognizing the importance of aesthetic inclusivity, he hopes to mesh ballet with pop culture and fashion. (A Dapper Dan–costumed piece might be in the cards.)
Whatever ballet's path forward, expect Shayer to be leading the conversation. "I'll never be finished fighting and advocating," he says. "I want to be the person who facilitates the idea of possibility in this historically exclusive world. And I want to present the possibility of success through my own story."