Gabe Stone Shayer, a 20 year-old corps de ballet dancer at American Ballet Theatre, is a swiftly rising star you're happy to cheer for. He joined the ABT studio company in 2011, just after graduating from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow (one of the first Americans to graduate from the elite Russian school.) In barely more than a year, he was invited to join the main company as an apprentice and was subsequently promoted to full company member. Since then, he's performed soloist roles, including the Chinese and Russian dances in Alexei Ratmansky's The Nutcracker, Ariel in The Tempest, and roles in Bach Partita and Piano Concerto #1.
“I almost can’t believe how abruptly it’s all happened,” says Shayer. “I don’t want to slow down, but sometimes I need to take a second to appreciate what I’ve accomplished — to take a breath and look at my life and tell myself I’m doing well, to be patient, and keep working hard.”
I recently spoke with the standout up-and-comer (in the midst of a heavy rehearsal schedule in preparation for ABT’s tour to Japan, where Shayer was called a “revelation” in reviews) about his training in Russia, transition into professional ballet, and his aspirations for the future.
What was it like training at the Bolshoi?
I started off splitting my time between Moscow and the Rock School in Pennsylvania when I was 14, went to the Bolshoi for the full year in 2011, and graduated from the Bolshoi Academy when I was 17. I had been trained in the Russian technique since I started ballet, so it wasn’t that much of a change, stylistically. When I got there, though, my teacher said he had to take me back to stage one and redo my training. That was difficult, of course, but being a dancer you know whatever your teacher is saying is to help you no matter how hard or painful it is. It meant practically relearning ballet. We had to redo my muscularity, how I worked in class, how I used my body for articulations. My placement at the barre was completely wrong. I was turning out from the bottom of my legs too much as opposed to from my hips. My arm coordination was off. We spent hours before, during, and after classes going over port de bras.
Is it typical to get so much individual attention?
The classes there are very small. We had one of the biggest classes and we had eight guys. Most of the classes are six to eight people, at the most. Technique classes are two and a half hours, so the teachers have time to spend with all of us. Additionally, though, I did get a lot of individual attention before and after class.
What’s it been like to transition so quickly from a training environment with so much one-on-one time with teachers to a large company?
The funny thing is that for me it’s not that different from the last year of schooling at the Bolshoi. I don’t get as much attention, but I actually do still get plenty of attention and corrections. I seek it out deliberately, which I think you have to take responsibility for doing for yourself. I make a point to be seen and judged because that’s what I need to get better. I try to stand in front in company class and always show the teachers that I’m taking their direction and everything they say seriously. They know I’m not just there to warm up my body before rehearsals. I’m there to learn and move forward.
What’s it been like rising through the ranks so quickly?
I try to just work my hardest and show everyone what I can do. I’m constantly trying to work on my body and my mind. It’s important to me to try to constantly improve not only technically but also as an artist. It’s really helpful to have Alexei Ratmansky, since he knows me via Russian connections. It was an absolutely amazing experience and an honor to do the role of Ariel in The Tempest. Ratmansky actually created the part on me and Daniil Simkin. The process of developing the character in my mind, learning what Ratmasky’s idea of the character would be, and ultimately bringing it to life taught me so much.
You toured with the Rebecca Davis Dance Company in a lead role in an intense modern ballet about genocide in Darfur when you were just 13. What was that like, and how do you think the experience affected you?
It was an amazing experience because it was such a hard subject for someone that age. The ballet, Darfur, was based on the book The Devil Came on Horseback, by African Union military observer Brian Steidle, about the genocide in western Sudan. I played a young boy from this ravaged village. My character’s mother was raped and I died in the end. I was so lucky to be surrounded by older dancers who understood better than I at the time what the show was about and what we were doing. Having mature dancers around me helped me develop my role and also generally as a dancer.
Was that experience a turning point for you?
I always knew I wanted to dance. The first day of school when I was in kindergarten, we had to write about the best day of the summer. I rephrased it and wrote that the best of my life was when I knew I wanted to become a dancer and dance for my whole life. So I knew since I was about five or six that I wanted to dance, though I didn’t know how that could happen or what it would mean. At that point I had no idea about ballet companies or what I could do with dancing — even if it could be a real job — but I knew I wanted to be a dancer. It was my form of self-expression. The Darfur tour was a turning point, though, because it taught me to delve more deeply into my own emotions through dance. I had to portray so much in that role and it helped me to know what’s possible with the art form.
What are your goals for the future?
I would love to be doing principal roles with ABT, of course, but I’d also love — if it’s possible – to do principal roles with the Bolshoi. I am a black man, but I think of myself first as dancer. However, Russia’s such a predominantly white country that you really stand out if you’re black. They called me nicknames at school. Nothing felt like it was meant meanly. I think it was just because it was so new and different. I never had any trouble in the school, but it might be more difficult in the company. They type cast their own dancers, so actually having dark skin might make it really hard. But I’d love audiences to see me there and see what I can do.