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.