Courtesy Shayer

Gabe Stone Shayer Is Creating an African Narrative Ballet in a Locale That’s Not Only Dreamy, but Informing the Work Itself

American Ballet Theatre soloist Gabe Stone Shayer's latest project will inspire some serious travel envy. From March to April of this year, Shayer has been an artist in residence at Palm Heights Grand Cayman—a resort in the Cayman Islands—where he is choreographing an African-themed narrative ballet, performing solos that will become part of the upcoming piece, collaborating with Caymanian artists and teaching dance classes to guests.

The hotel's residency program is designed to cultivate artists, athletes and writers with ties to or interests in the Caribbean, aligning with Shayer's goals to honor his African heritage and increase the visibility of Black stories in ballet. Due to the islands' strict COVID-19 safety protocols and low number of cases, he's been able to safely create in an environment reminiscent of the pre-pandemic era.

As only the second ballet dancer to participate in the program—the first being San Francisco Ballet corps member Kimberly Marie Olivier, who had told Shayer about the opportunity—his feedback will help develop the residency for future dance artists. During his mandatory 15-day quarantine upon arrival, Palm Heights built a studio for him and future dance residents.

We spoke with Shayer about his new work and what it's been like to live and create in the Cayman Islands.

How did you decide to pursue this residency?

I saw an opportunity to create a space for performing artists to have a concentrated residency experience. Besides helping develop it, it was a perfect opportunity to start workshopping a bunch of choreography and a bunch of ideas that otherwise, especially during COVID, would be very difficult to find the studio space, the time, the works to really curate what I was trying to make happen.

What impact has living and working in that environment had on your creative process?

What's vastly different is I'm on a very small island that has very good control over their COVID protocol, so it's practically COVID-free. You get tested before you get on the plane, you have to get tested off the plane, and you have to get tested right after your quarantine ends before you can leave your room. The protocol is extreme, but it makes for a very free environment. We're as close to normalcy as you can get. I have the freedom to not think about this extra hurdle of not being able to get close to someone, or not being able to use a studio without this, that and the other thing. It gives me the expansive feeling of being able to reach anything that I'm putting myself out there for.

Can you give an overview of what you're working on?

For a while, I've been thinking about the idea of this project to honor African and Black narratives through classical ballet. I feel like ballet needs to do a million different things. One, of course, is to update things. Be socially conscious, and hopefully be sustainable one day in terms of costuming. But a big thing is championing Black and brown cultures and narratives through stories that people haven't seen before on a ballet stage, or in the proscenium of a theater like the Metropolitan Opera House.

I had the idea to either shape an African narrative, or make up an African narrative, or take a piece of folklore and turn it into some sort of fairy-tale piece that shows the beauty, the strength, the elegance of African cultures—specifically Ghanaian culture, because that's what I'm closest to. I'm part Ghanaian, and it's what I know. But hopefully in the future, expanding that into other cultures, as well.

What has it been like to be a Black American artist of Ghanaian heritage, creating an African narrative ballet in a location with such a large Black population? Does that have any impact on your mindset or anything else about creating this work?

I think it does. I'm really excited about it because, for me, it feels like the first time I'm going to be doing something that is in the vocabulary of ballet, that is a story about my ancestry or connected to my ancestry, and really shows more colors to ballet than just the German, the French, the Italian stories. It gives way to other narratives that will hopefully involve and make a new community interested in watching ballet and seeing themselves more so than just by face, but by story and by content, as well.

It's great to see what inspires the people who are here, and what the culture derives from. It's a very, very, very mixed island in terms of culture. It's very international. But a lot of the people here have some lineage from West Africa, which is serendipitous, because a lot of these African stores or places where textiles are made lean towards West African and Ghanaian.

I've been essentially curating my costume with a woman who makes adinkra symbols. It's a Ghanaian symbol that represents different strengths within people. One symbol may represent being cunning, or power, or strength, or love. These symbols are, a lot of times, printed on cloth or clothing to signify what you identify with. I found two textiles that this woman made with a power symbol on them, and made them into my costume.

You've mentioned wanting to fuse ballet with fashion and pop culture, which you've already done with creators like Alicia Keys and Dapper Dan. In addition to working with the textile designer, are there any interdisciplinary collaborations we should expect to see here in music, costuming or otherwise?

I'm working with a few designers who are under the umbrella of Vogue Talents. It's a program for up-and-coming designers and artists and collaborators to get together. I met them through a mutual contact at Vogue Italia, and they sent me down here with their clothing. The brand is called Corban Harper.

I consider cuisine an art form, and displaying this West African work is also a part of a larger evening. I talked with the executive chef here, Jake Tyler Brodsky. He's done a lot of research into what West African food is and how to shape it for his menu, and, in turn, we created a collaborative evening where people were able to learn about West African culture through all of their senses by tasting new foods and watching me dance.

On The Dance Edit Podcast, you mentioned wanting to make a ballet about Mansa Musa [a 14th-century king of Mali] or the orishas [Yoruba deities]. Will we see any of those themes in this piece?

For this work, I thought that I would want to do a bit more in-depth research before putting a real name and face to what I'm doing. So I've just made it about an African king/chief. It's more vague; I could play with it a bit more. The narrative of the solo is of a young king coming to power and having to take control of his kingdom, but with the humility that he has, it's daunting to take the reins. But he fully leans into it.

What are your plans to present this work in the future?

I'm planning to workshop more of this piece through the coming year. I am probably using my nonprofit company, Creative Genesis, to film dances on location again when I'm back in America, and to workshop more of the ballet and flesh out the storylines for the rest of the characters. I'll hopefully work with The Guggenheim at some point to do Works & Process. And hit all of those points in New York to present the work and find people who want to see it come to fruition.

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Chisako Oga photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton

Chisako Oga Is Soaring to New Heights at Boston Ballet

Chisako Oga is a dancer on the move—in more ways than one. From childhood training in Texas, California and Japan to a San Francisco Ballet apprenticeship to her first professional post with Cincinnati Ballet, where she quickly rose to principal dancer, she has rarely stood still for long.

But now the 24-year-old ballerina is right where she wants to be, as one of the most promising soloists at Boston Ballet. In 2019, Oga left her principal contract to join the company as a second soloist, rising to soloist the following year. "I knew I would have to take a step down to join a company of a different caliber, and Boston Ballet is one of the best companies in the country," she says. "The repertoire—Kylián, Forysthe, all the full-length ballets—is so appealing to me."

And the company has offered her major opportunities from the start. She danced the title role in Giselle in her very first performances with Boston Ballet, transforming a playful innocent into a woman haunted by betrayal with dramatic conviction and technical aplomb. But she also is making her mark in contemporary work. The last ballet she performed onstage before the pandemic hit was William Forsythe's demanding In the middle, somewhat elevated, which she says was a dream to perform. "The style really clicked, felt really comfortable. Bill drew something new out of me every rehearsal. As hard as it was, it was so much fun."

"Chisako is a very natural mover, pliable and strong," says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "Dancing seems to come very easy for her. Not many have that quality. She's like a diamond—I'm curious to see how much we can polish that talent."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, does a pench\u00e9 on pointe towards the camera with her arms held out to the side and her long hair flying. Smiling confidently, she wears a blue leotard and a black and white ombr\u00e9 tutu.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

A Life-Changing Opportunity

Oga began dancing at the age of 3. Born in Dallas, she and her family moved around to follow her father's job in IT. Before settling in Carlsbad, California, they landed in Japan for several years, where Oga began to take ballet very seriously. "I like the simplicity of ballet, the structure and the clear vocabulary," she says. "Dances that portray a story or have a message really drew me in. One of my favorite parts of a story ballet is diving into the role and becoming the character, putting it in my perspective."

In California, Oga studied with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky and Maxim Tchernychev. Her teachers encouraged her to enter competitions, which she says broadened her outlook and fed her love of performing in front of an audience. Though highly motivated, she says she came to realize that winning medals wasn't everything. "Honestly, I feel like the times I got close and didn't place gave me perspective, made me realize being a dancer doesn't define you and helped me become the person and the dancer I am today."

At 15, Oga was a semifinalist at the Prix de Lausanne, resulting in a "life-changing" scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. There she trained with two of her most influential teachers, Tina LeBlanc and Patrick Armand. "She came in straightaway with strong basics," Armand recalls, "and working with her for two years, I realized how clever she is. She's super-smart, thoughtful, driven, always working."

She became a company apprentice in 2016. Then came the disappointing news—she was let go a few months later. Pushing 5' 2", she was simply too short for the company's needs, she was told. "It was really, really hard," says Oga. "I felt like I was on a good track, so to be let go was very shocking, especially since my height was not something I could improve or change."

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

Moving On and Up

Ironically, Oga's height proved an advantage in auditioning for Cincinnati Ballet, which was looking for a talented partner for some of their shorter men. She joined the company in 2016, was quickly promoted to soloist, and became a principal dancer for the 2017–18 season, garnering major roles like Swanilda and Juliet during her three years with the company. "There were times I felt insignificant and insecure, like I don't deserve this," Oga says about these early opportunities. "But I was mostly thrilled to be put in those shoes."

She was also thriving in contemporary work, like choreographer-in-residence Jennifer Archibald's MYOHO. Archibald cites her warmth, playfulness and sensitivity, adding, "There's also a powerful presence about her, and I was amazed at how fast she was at picking up choreography, able to find the transitions quickly. She's definitely a special talent. Boston Ballet will give her more exposure on a national level."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, poses in attitude derriere crois\u00e9 on her right leg, with her right arm out to the side and her left hand grazing her left shoulder. She smiles happily towards the camera, her black hair blowing in the breeze, and wears a blue leotard, black-and-white ombre tutu, and skin-colored pointe shoes.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

That was Oga's plan. She knew going in that Cincinnati was more stepping-stone than final destination. She had her sights on a bigger company with a broader repertoire, and Boston Ballet seemed ideal.

As she continues to spread her wings at the company, Oga has developed a seemingly effortless artistic partnership with one of Boston Ballet's most dynamic male principals, Derek Dunn, who Oga calls "a kind-hearted, open person, so supportive when I've been hard on myself. He's taught me to believe in myself and trust that I'm capable of doing whatever the choreography needs." The two have developed an easy bond in the studio she likens to "a good conversation, back and forth."

Dunn agrees. "I knew the first time we danced together we had a special connection," he says. "She really takes on the artistic side of a role, which makes the connection really strong when we're dancing onstage. It's like being in a different world."

He adds, "She came into the company and a lot was thrown at her, which could have been daunting. She handled it with such grace and confidence."

Derek Dunn, shirtless and in blue tights, lunges slightly on his right leg and holds Chisako Oga's hand as she balances on her left leg on pointe with her right leg flicking behind her. She wears a yellow halter-top leotard and they dance onstage in front of a bright orange backdrop.

Oga with Derek Dunn in Helen Pickett's Petal

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Perspective in a Pandemic

The pair were heading into Boston Ballet's busy spring season when the pandemic hit. "It was really a bummer," Oga says. "I was really looking forward to Swan Lake, Bella Figura, some new world premieres. When we found out the whole season was canceled, it was hard news to take in."

But she quickly determined to make the most of her time out of the studio and physically rest her body. "All the performances take a toll. Of course, I did stretches and exercised, but we never give ourselves enough time to rest as dancers."

She also resumed college courses toward a second career. Oga is one of many Boston Ballet dancers taking advantage of a special partnership with Northeastern University to help them earn bachelor's degrees. Focusing on finance and accounting, Oga upped her classes in economics, algebra, business and marketing. She also joined Boston Ballet's Color Our Future Mentoring Program to raise awareness and support diversity, equity and inclusion. "I am trying to have my voice inspire the next generation," she says.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

One pandemic silver lining has been spending more time with her husband, Grand Rapids Ballet dancer James Cunningham. The two met at Cincinnati Ballet, dancing together in Adam Hougland's Cut to the Chase just after Oga's arrival, and got married shortly before her move to Boston. Cunningham took a position in Grand Rapids, so they've been navigating a long-distance marriage ever since. They spend a lot of time texting and on FaceTime, connecting in person during layoffs. "It's really hard," Oga admits, but adds, "We are both very passionate about the art form, so it's easy to support each other's goals."

Oga's best advice for young dancers? "Don't take any moment for granted," she says without hesitation. "It doesn't matter what rank you are, just do everything to the fullest—people will see the hard work you put in. Don't settle for anything less. Knowing [yourself] is also very important, not holding yourself to another's standards. No two paths are going to be the same."

And for the foreseeable future, Oga's path is to live life to the fullest, inside and outside ballet. "The pandemic put things in perspective. Dancing is my passion. I want to do it as long as I can, but it's only one portion of my life. I truly believe a healthy balance between social and work life is good for your mental health and helps me be a better dancer."

Kaatsbaan Cultural Park artistic director Stella Abrera and executive director Sonja Kostich. Photo by Quinn Wharton, Courtesy Kaatsbaan Cultural Park

The Inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival Brings Together Leading Figures in Dance

The rollout of vaccinations is helping the U.S. turn a corner during this coronavirus pandemic, and artists and audience members alike are looking forward to enjoying live performances once again. It couldn't be more perfect timing, then, for the inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival, which will feature 16 presentations on two outdoor stages in New York's Hudson Valley. Taking place May 20–23 and May 27–30, the festival brings together luminaries from multiple disciplines, including dance, music, poetry, sculpture and the culinary arts.

"During a challenging year such as this, we really wanted to provide artists from various genres opportunities for support and work," says Sonja Kostich, Kaatsbaan Cultural Park's executive director.

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Ballet West principal Katlyn Addison in a still from In The Balance. Courtesy Ballet West

Ballet West’s New Web Series Documents an Uncertain November

If the story of a ballet company presenting performances amidst a global pandemic, a divisive presidential election, and uprisings for justice sounds like it was made for TV, Ballet West has a series for you. In The Balance: Ballet for a Lost Year is a nine-episode documentary about BW's November 2020 performances, which took place at Salt Lake City's Capitol Theatre. The series premieres Friday, May 7, on Ballet West's social media channels, with a new episode released every Friday. (Viewers can also unlock all nine episodes on Ballet West's website starting May 7.)

For a month filmmakers Diana Whitten and Tyler Measom of Skyscape Studios had unlimited access to company class (divided into pods to abide by COVID-19 restrictions), rehearsals for new ballets by Jennifer Archibald and Nicolo Fonte, and interviews with artists and administrators. Some of the series' most fascinating insights come from people's different ways of navigating uncertainty, and how this connects to the arts.

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