Transcript, Episode 52: Diversifying Ballet Faculties, the “SYTYCD” Legacy, and Gabe Stone Shayer

[Jump to Gabe Stone Shayer interview.]


Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi, dance friends, and welcome to The Dance Edit Podcast. I’m Margaret Fuhrer.

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m Courtney Escoyne.

Cadence Neenan:
And I’m Cadence Neenan.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media. And in today’s episode, we’ll be talking about what has kept ballet faculties so white for so long, and how schools are working to diversify their teacher pools. We’ll unpack the profound and often unrecognized emotional demands that ballet puts on its dancers. We will discuss what’s going on with “So You Think You Can Dance” this year and then reflect on what the show’s legacy might be. Then we’ll have our interview with Gabe Stone Shayer, the American Ballet Theatre soloist who has been a prominent voice in dance’s ongoing racial reckoning. If you’ve read pretty much any interview with Gabe—and he’s been seemingly everywhere recently, he’s been in Vogue, Contrast Magazine, he had a big feature in Pointe—if you’ve read any of those stories, then you know that he pulls absolutely zero punches. He was completely candid in our conversation in a way that I think dance, and especially ballet, needs a lot more of. Really excited for you all to hear that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
First, though, here’s your reminder to rate, interview and subscribe to this podcast wherever you listen, and also to give us a follow on Instagram @the.dance.edit and on Twitter @dance_edit. We talk a lot about the importance of dance folks’ voices on this podcast, and I know this sounds super corny, but that very much includes your voice. We want to hear your perspectives and your opinions—maybe on this podcast itself, that’s great, but also on the complicated and many-sided dance topics that we get into each week. So please write us a review or leave us a comment or send us a DM and let us know what you’re thinking about.

All right. Now, it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown and, Cadence, you’re starting this week.

Cadence Neenan:
All right. As the inaugural season of “The Masked Dancer” came to a close, the show crowned its first winner, Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas. Douglas’s win is even more impressive considering she beat out two trained dancers: “Dancing With the Stars” pro Maksim Chmerkovskiy came in second place, and third place went to “Dance Moms” alum Mackenzie Ziegler. While a second season of “The Masked Dancer” hasn’t been made official yet, show runners are optimistic that it will return for a season two and beyond.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Gabby’s the best. Also, follow her on TikTok if you’re not already. Her account is perfection.

Courtney Escoyne:
The Venice Biennale awarded its Golden Lion for lifetime achievement in dance to choreographer Germaine Acogny, aka the mother of contemporary African dance. And the Silver Lion, recognizing new voices in the European scene, went to Oona Doherty, whose name you might recognize from this year’s Dance Magazine 25 to Watch list. Congrats to them both.

Cadence Neenan:
TikTok dance star Charli D’Amelio was awarded a spot on this year’s TIME100 Next list of emerging leaders, with a bio written by none other than Jennifer Lopez. In it, Lopez refers to D’Amelio as the biggest new teenage star right now, and she just might be right.

Courtney Escoyne:
Now we’ve got a bit of news that technically took place in December, though the story is only just now making English-language news reports. Eight people, including two dancers, working on a production with dance company Y-Space bowed out of performances in Hong Kong, due to concerns that the inclusion of the song “Glory to Hong Kong,” which was the de facto anthem of antigovernment protesters in 2019, might contravene Hong Kong’s national security law, which criminalizes insults to the national anthem, which was also included in the show’s score. According to the artistic director, they were concerned with the possible impact on future performances in mainland China and/or their family’s immigration plans, and so decided to recuse themselves from the performance.

Margaret Fuhrer:
A very complicated story. We will include a link in the episode description to a South China Morning Post piece that breaks down the details.

Cadence Neenan:
Penn State held its annual 46-hour dance marathon virtually for the first time in its nearly 50-year history. However, the new streamed format didn’t seem to hinder the danceathon whatsoever. The students managed to raise more than $10 million for pediatric cancer research and patient support.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yoann Bourgeois, the co-director of the National Choreography Center in Grenoble, was accused of plagiarizing choreography earlier this month in an anonymous video, which super-imposed short excerpts from his shows with clips from shows by other artists. Bourgeois has refuted the allegations.

Cadence Neenan:
In a recent interview, “Dancing with the Stars” pro Gleb Savchenko said that he would love to see the ABC show begin to feature same-sex partner pairings. He noted that “Strictly Come Dancing,” “DWTS”‘s sister show, recently featured its first same-sex pairing. He also mentioned that how much he would have loved to have danced with Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir on the show’s most recent season. And I think I can speak for all of us when I say, same.

Courtney Escoyne:
Can they just do that on their own anyway?

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s what I was going to say. Can we just see that project happen outside of “Dancing with the Stars”? I am on board.

Cadence Neenan:
Please and thank you.

Courtney Escoyne:
InStyle produced a feature looking at the Black creatives working to make Atlanta a new epicenter for the arts, and included in the lineup are choreographer Sean Bankhead and Atlanta Ballet dancer Keith Reeves. And may I just say their images from the shoot are fabulous.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Incredible. Yeah. We’ll include a link to that too. It’s such a great roundup altogether.

Cadence Neenan:
If you’re looking to further celebrate Black History Month, be sure to check out the Ice Theatre of New York City Skate Pop Up Concert. This Thursday at 4:00 PM, performer and coach Aaron Singletary will perform a work titled “Fragile,” choreographed by Douglas Webster and set to music by Sting. Singletary’s performance is in honor of longtime ITNY performer Alyssa Stith, and Black History Month. So if you’re a fan of skating, be sure to check it out.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s today, the day you’re hearing this.

Courtney Escoyne:
A piece of news that broke as we were sitting down to record, much to our excitement: The Colburn School has announced that Silas Farley will take over as dean at the school’s Trudl Zipper Dance Institute on July 1st. He will be joined by Darleen Callaghan, as associate dean, and they’ll be taking over from Jenifer Ringer and James Fayette, who will remain tied to the school as the visiting artists. I think I speak for all of us when I say congrats, Silas. This is so well-deserved. Those kids are so lucky to have you.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We have made no secret of our love for Silas Farley. That was such incredible news to get. That is also an excellent segue into our first round table segment this episode, in which we’re going to talk about diversifying ballet faculties. Theresa Ruth Howard just wrote a story about this for Dance Magazine. Actually, it’s a companion to her tokenism versus representation story that we discussed a few weeks back. But this new article gets into why ballet school faculties, especially the faculties of big company-affiliated ballet schools, have been nearly 100% white for so long. Then it highlights some of the Black artists who have recently joined top training programs. So these new appointments are definitely a step in the right direction, but Howard also gets into the different ways that representation can and should work in ballet training, and how ballet’s whole faculty recruitment process needs to change.

Cadence Neenan:
So in this piece, Howard talks a lot about how there has always been a lack of Black ballet teachers and professional training programs and how most frequently, this problem is answered with the common refrain of, “We can’t find them.” In the past, professional training programs have operated like a classic old boys’ network. It’s all about who you know, and in order to know the right people, you have to occupy the right spaces. But she talks about how lately, there seems to suddenly be a proliferation of qualified candidates, and quotes choreographer William Isaac, saying, “There seems to be an arms race to hire Black ballet teachers.” She talks about and with teachers from School of American Ballet, Boston Ballet School, Pacific Northwest Ballet School, and San Francisco Ballet School on how they have all hired new, full-time Black ballet teachers pretty recently. While some of these hires had been in the works for a few years, it does seem like a pretty sudden rush to hire Black educators.

She talks a lot about the power of representation, both what it will mean for young Black dancers to see themselves represented in their teachers, but also what it will mean for white students, parents, and patrons to see and experience expertise from people of other colors. She reminds us that if schools are truly committed to diversifying their faculty sooner, rather than later, they’re going to need to acknowledge the implicit bias that reinforces the idea that only those who have a particular career trajectory are qualified and that ballet teachers all need to look, sound and instruct the same way.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and I think a great point that was made talking specifically about The School of American Ballet is that New York City Ballet hires nearly 100% of its dancers from SAB, and SAB hires nearly 100% of its teachers from New York City Ballet. When you look at the fact that City Ballet has had a total of 32 Black dancers in its entire history, it does kind of start to make sense, why it’s taken so long. So one of the points that is made and that a lot of the faculty heads who were interviewed in the story are starting to acknowledge is we need to look beyond the very narrow silo that we’re looking at when going about hiring.

I think also, this gets at sort of a side point, which is that being a great dancer or having this very particular career path of having been a soloist or a principal with whatever company, that doesn’t necessarily make you qualified to teach technique. Pedagogy is its own art form. It has its own very specific requirements and knowledge that one has to have. Just because you can do it doesn’t necessarily mean you can teach it well.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So, the teachers that the story highlights are Aesha Ash at SAB, Andrea Long-Naidu at Boston Ballet School, Ikolo Griffin at Pacific Northwest Ballet School, and Jason Ambrose at San Francisco Ballet School. Most of these dancers have pretty traditional high-level ballet pedigrees. Aesha was at New York City Ballet, and then at LINES; Andrea was at New York City Ballet and then Dance Theatre of Harlem. I think that was one of the reasons that they were hired. There was this sense that they already speak the language that those schools were trying to teach their students. But as Theresa says and as Cadence mentioned, if schools really want to diversify now, sooner rather than later, they’re going to have to step outside of that comfort zone and actively recruit teachers with different kinds of backgrounds.

Another point that Cadence touched on that Theresa made in her piece, is this idea that, of course, it’s important for young marginalized students to see people who look like them in positions of power, but it’s just as important for white students, for white parents, for white patrons, as Cadence said, to see these kinds of leaders. Because most non-white artists already know that they deserve these kinds of positions. It’s the white members of the ballet community who have to learn that. Seeing these teachers at the front of the class will help them shed their biases and prejudices.

Cadence Neenan:
And that’s something that I feel like we’ve talked about on this podcast before, needing to see people of color in every level of dance organizations, not just as performers, not just as teachers, but as administrators, as company leaders. It really needs to be across the board.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So we’re coming at ballet from a few different angles this episode, or really coming for ballet from a few different angles this episode. In our next segment, we want to talk about how, just as ballet has traditionally not been tolerant of diverse ethnicities, it’s also not been tolerant of diverse personalities or even emotions. Pointe magazine recently published an article by Suvi Honkanen, who’s a former Finnish National Ballet dancer, and it talks about the huge emotional toll that ballet can take on its practitioners. So as she says, ballet dancers are taught to be meek and obedient. They are often bullied or belittled by their teachers and directors and choreographers. They’re conditioned from the beginning to just put up with intimidation and humiliation. And yeah, that kind of environment is widely accepted as normal. It’s sort of a ballet baseline. There’s this idea—and it’s not unique to ballet, but it’s very much a part of ballet—this idea that to get the best out of an artist, you have to break them down first.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and I think there’s a pervasive idea that because ballet is a really physically difficult practice—like I think we all, anyone who trained in ballet kind of normalizes it a little bit, but when you stop and think about it, it’s like, wow. You are asking your body to do some deeply unnatural things here. So it is really difficult. It takes a lot of discipline. It takes a lot of the traits that are constantly talked about, that grit, that discipline in order to actually get yourself to do those things.

But oftentimes in the classroom—and I think we’ve all heard horror stories about this—in the classroom, in the rehearsal studio, teachers don’t just push students to push themselves to be able to do that; essentially, it slips over the line to bullying and harassment and all these other terrible things that ultimately comes down to not healthy working environments that dancers then internalize and normalize. They get used to being told, “Well, I have to do exactly what I’m being told because that’s what it takes to do this. I have to have thick skin because that’s what it takes to make it in this profession.” It doesn’t give any space for vulnerability. It doesn’t give any space for different learning styles. Things that push one person to be their best might be something that is really harmful and detrimental to another person.

One of the points in this that really struck me, the idea of ballet training in this mold fails to recognize vulnerability and fails to cultivate it. I was thinking about recently—I was going through the Dance Magazine Archives, as I tend to do, and I found this quote from Maria Tallchief. She said, “Being vulnerable is the most important thing of all,” talking about being an artist and being a dancer. I think that a point that’s really made in this article, is that if we shut down that vulnerability, not only are we losing potentially really incredible artists who just don’t want to put up with this kind of harassment and bullying in their training, we’re also taking that away from the people who do manage to stick it out. So as a result, not only are we making the field unhealthy, we’re also making it less artistically interesting and viable.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The Mark Morris quote about “dead virgins”—where do you think that comes from? That is sought out as a valuable type of personality.

Courtney Escoyne:
Which also, another thing that really got me about this, was she was talking specifically about being 18 years old and having a director telling her, “Oh yeah. You need to have a boyfriend, have sex and do all these things off stage so that you can be interesting on stage,” and then a different choreographer telling her, “No, you have to be slavishly devoted to ballet and spend all of your time here and do nothing else.” Both of those things were presented as the ideals that she was supposed to be meeting and not at all as contradictory. And also not even acknowledging that like, “Hey, what’s up? You don’t get to dictate what my life is outside of the studio.” That should not be the case. I know dance obviously requires a lot of dedication and a lot of commitment, but directors don’t have the right to dictate who you are when you are not in the studio. They also don’t have the right to dictate who you are when you are in the studio, frankly.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We all too often forget that dance, and ballet especially, these are workplaces. Dancers are workers, and they deserve the same types of protections and the same kind of treatment that all workers have been afforded or are supposed to be afforded.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, and just because we start this at such a young age, we get it in our heads that we don’t deserve those things and that is untrue and not the case.

Cadence Neenan:
That was one of the things that for me, struck home the hardest about this story, is Honkanen talking about how this kind of conditioning starts when we’re really young. I had a teacher—and this is a teacher I revered and to this day still have so much love in my heart for and respect—she would tell us every time we came to class to leave all our emotions at the door. I think it’s a pretty common one. But reading this story and reflecting on that, first of all, that’s impossible. Nobody is able to just drop their emotions and their feelings and their anxieties and all of their outside life at the studio door. You’re a human and those things are a part of you.

But I also think, why are we being told to leave our emotions at the door? Like you were saying, Courtney, bringing that vulnerability and bringing those emotions can really help strengthen our dancing, our artistry, and help us to bring those emotions to the stage. So I think it’s just—as Honkanen was saying, if we’re going to help ballet to survive, it needs to evolve into something kinder, something more empathetic, something that recognizes our emotions and our feelings, and doesn’t ask us to leave them at the door.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Also, for what it’s worth: I’m not going to pretend to have deep knowledge of pedagogical psychology, but from my limited knowledge of it, that’s sort of the consensus, is that the most successful learning environments do foster compassion and empathy. The tough love approach has been pretty roundly debunked. So let’s create healthier people who are also healthier artists.

I also want to say, just because I feel like it needs to be said: It might feel like we’ve been doing a lot of ballet bashing, both in this episode and just in general recently—which is a little ironic given that we just spent a whole segment talking about how problematic tough love is. But that criticism is coming from a place of deep care and respect. If we weren’t so invested in this art form, we wouldn’t be so passionate about seeing it improve and making it better for future generations. I just wanted to get that on the record before we move forward.

Okay. So we’re making a hard turn now, in our last round table segment. We’re going to head over into the world of reality TV and talk a bit about “So You Think You Can Dance,” that pioneer of the TV dance world. Because this is the time of year when we usually get word from Fox about the show’s renewal and its summer schedule. But last week, TVLine published a piece stating that a Fox insider had told them that production on the show’s 17th season is not currently moving forward. Just a little context here: Season 17 is the season that was supposed to happen last year, but then was postponed to this summer due to COVID concerns.

This news was disappointing to a lot of “So You Think” fans I think partly because there was this hope that because Fox figured out how to pull off “The Masked Dancer” during the pandemic, they could do this other dance show as well, a pandemic version of it. We should say, too, that the show isn’t necessarily done for. It has not been officially canceled. But this is an interesting moment to think about what role this show actually plays in today’s dance ecosystem. Could this be a sort of natural end to a phenomenon that has run its course? Or is “So You Think You Can Dance” worth putting up a fight for? And admittedly, we’re biased here, or I am at least am biased here.

Cadence Neenan:
Like Margaret said, “So You Think You Can Dance”‘s 17th season was canceled last summer due to the pandemic. I think when that happened, it felt pretty predictable. I don’t think anyone was questioning that. All of life was going on pause. Performances were not happening. But I think once shows like “Dancing with the Stars” and “Masked Dancer” were able to air—and largely without a hitch, might I add—it raised a lot of questions for “So You Think” fans, like could the show return in 2021. But like Margaret also mentioned, the show’s producers have said they’re not moving forward with the next season of “So You Think” at the present moment. This is probably because of the show’s famed public audition process, something that just seems unfathomable now in COVID life, like large groups of people, who can think of it.

Courtney Escoyne:
Which, am I remembering correctly that last season when they were thinking they might be airing later in the year, they’d actually done taped auditions, and Nigel Lythgoe talked about how they’d figured out how to replace that live audition process?

Margaret Fuhrer:
It does not seem like an insurmountable obstacle, I have to say.

Cadence Neenan:
Definitely. But with recent comments, it does seem unlikely that the show will be returning this season, which leaves a lot of people kind of wondering, what is the future for this show if it doesn’t happen for two summers in a row? Is there going to be a continuation of it, or are they just going to put it on an extended hiatus ,as they once did One Direction, for it never to return? I’m not bitter.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Ooo, I love you sneaking in a One Direction reference.

Cadence Neenan:
Sneaking that in there! I will say around May of last year, my fellow Dance Spirit editor Amanda Sherwin had the chance to speak with Nigel Lythgoe about plans for the show. While the season he had hoped to produce didn’t come to fruition last year, he had some other interesting ideas he pitched in that interview. For instance, he said that a fun alternative to a traditional live season would be to put past “So You Think” seasons in competition with each other and have viewers vote on their all-time favorite dancers and dances. Honestly, with such an impassioned fan base, I think that that would be incredibly fun.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I think that’s the game we’ve all been playing in our heads since the show started.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, isn’t that all anyone who has gone to summer intensives in the time of “So You Think You Can Dance,” isn’t that just what you do? There was also a story in Dance Magazine several years ago talking about the “So You Think You Can Dance” effect on culture and dance’s place in America. One of the things that came up was talking about “So You Think” and YouTube getting big around the same time, which was such a huge factor in dance finding a home on YouTube. I think about this a lot because I think there are arguments to be made about, “Oh, it’s just 90 second routines and they’re all full of tricks and whatever.” And I’m like, I’ve made those complaints. I think everyone has made those complaints at some point. But there is a craft to it, and also, it’s digestible and accessible. Also, those routines were huge for making dance have a place on the internet.

Cadence Neenan:
And I think for bringing a lot of new fans to dance. I know plenty of suburban moms who had never watched a single dance performance or routine, but these really well-produced memorable pieces, I think hit home with a lot of people who wouldn’t be fans of dance otherwise and bring them into the art form when they wouldn’t normally have been brought in.

Margaret Fuhrer:
My grandmother knows who Mia Michaels is. That’s pretty extraordinary, and the show did that.

Cadence Neenan:
Margaret, you had sent us a piece that Brian Schaefer had written for the Times in 2018 about the legacy of “So You Think,” and one of the points that it made that really struck home for me was how the show has increased visibility for choreographers. We talk a lot on this show about crediting and appreciating choreographers, and that’s something “So You Think” does really well. Every year, they dominate the nominations, the wins for the Emmy for best choreography. And it’s, like Margaret said, made people like Mia Michaels and Mandy Moore household names.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, because it’s not like they were just saying, “Here are these dancers,” and never saying who made the dances. No. They talk to the choreographers, they show the choreographers, they highlight the choreographers. They really centered choreographers as well as these extraordinary dancers. It’s been a leaping off point for them as well.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Here’s my sort of final thought on “So You Think You Can Dance,” at least for the moment. I don’t think any of us will ever regret meeting literally any of the dancers that show introduced us to. Every dancer who’s made it to the “So You Think You Can Dance” Top 20 has been fantastic. These are artists who have traditionally been relegated to the background in the entertainment industry. “So You Think You Can Dance” brought these fabulously talented people to the foreground, and helped teach mainstream audiences how incredible dancers—and choreographers, but dancers especially—are. And for that, I will always be grateful.

Cadence Neenan:
Cheers.

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right. We’re running long as usual. So we’re going to take a break. And when we come back, we’ll have our interview with Gabe Stone Shayer. Stay tuned.

[pause]

INTERVIEW WITH GABE STONE SHAYER

Margaret Fuhrer:
Welcome back, dance friends. I am here now with Gabe Stone Shayer. Gabe is an extraordinary performer. He’s currently a soloist with American Ballet Theatre. He’s also one of the most thoughtful voices in the ballet world. But actually Gabe, instead of me giving my version of your bio, would you mind talking a little bit about your career and your relationship with dance?

Gabe Stone Shayer:
Yes. I mean, that was a lovely intro, but yes, so I am from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I grew up training there. I started dancing when I was about three, as you do, and started to focus on ballet strictly when I was about eight years old with a Russian teacher. I started really falling in love with the Vaganova syllabus and studied at various schools around Philadelphia, the Gwendolyn Bye Dance Academy, Philadanco, Koresh Dance Academy, and then finally The Rock School for Dance Education. After that, I moved to Moscow, Russia and finished out my training at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. I graduated when I was 16 and then joined American Ballet Theatre shortly after that. I went to the Studio Company for a few months, but I think it was September to April, and then joined in April.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And then you had kind of a long road between joining the corps and being promoted to soloist.

Gabe Stone Shayer:
Yes. Yes. So right off the bat, when I joined the company, I was favored by Alexei Ratmansky, the resident choreographer, which was such a great honor at the time. I had just come from Bolshoi and he was the director of the Bolshoi company. And on top of it, we came from the same lineage. His teacher, Pyotr Pestov, was also my teacher’s teacher and by proxy connected to me. So he understood where I was coming from training-wise and understood some of my capabilities from my training background. We got along really well. So I got a lot of opportunities early on. And as you do, I wanted to of course be a principal, but I knew that there was a waiting game and I was just happy to be doing a lot of the roles that I was doing under Alexei.

But then it came to a point after about four or five years where I was… It wasn’t one opportunity and then wait, it was opportunity, and then every year my roster grew and my repertoire grew, and I would do progressively more and more and more and more…to the point where I think it was after five, six years in the company, around that point, that I was dancing the equivalent amount of soloist roles as the soloists in my “niche”—which, we’re kind of categorized by our heights—so in the short niche, I was doing the same amount as Daniil Simkin and, at the time, Jeffrey Cirio, who are actually principals. And then also doing principal roles. And it was hard for me. I kept on kind of prying and asking about why I wasn’t being promoted contrary to how I was being featured. It was strange not to be promoted. You think that if you’re failing that you wouldn’t keep getting new opportunities. So there was a weird disconnect and a lot of confusing critiques that I think were tactfully trying to throw me off of asking more questions.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I’m going to start big, because this ties into to what you were just talking about, and also it’s Black History Month—this is sort of a natural and a necessary moment for bigger picture reflection. For a long time, you’ve been very vocal about the racism that you’ve seen and experienced in ballet. And that conversation has become a central part of your work. Can you start by talking about your personal experiences as a Black man in ballet and how racism has shaped your career?

Gabe Stone Shayer:
Yeah. So I would say, let’s start at the beginning, when I was young and getting into ballet. I, like many other boys and men, was one out of none. I was the only boy in some of these smaller schools. So I didn’t feel too much of the racism immediately.

However, when I went to my first competition, the Youth America Grand Prix—it wasn’t any of the directors or judges, it was a teacher, or it was a mom or a mom-teacher, came up to me and said something along the lines of, “Oh, that was nice. But so do you want to go to Ailey?” And it was out of nowhere and unnecessary to place that on me, place that weight on a, I think I was at the time, 12 year old. But I stood my ground and I said something along the lines of, “No, I want to be a classical ballet dancer, hence the ballet competition I’m at.” And then she replied, “Oh, so you want to go to DTH?” And I was a bit caught off guard because I was trying to give them the benefit of the doubt and be like, “Well, she just is stupid.” But then the racism showed its ugly head, in that she thought that I belonged in a predominantly Black space. And it kind of hurt me because, not to take away from these companies, these amazing companies that she was suggesting that I go to, but the fact that she thought that I belonged in a predominantly Black space and that’s the only place that I could have a career was really, really disheartening and annoying. And it kind of put a cloud over my whole outlook on what I could achieve in one vein.

In another vein, I was very strong in my identity. And I was like, “You know what? This is obviously the direction that I’m going.” But I think that subconsciously—and I say that because it wasn’t until later that I looked back on around that time—that I was like, “You know what I want to Europe. I want to train in Europe. I want to dance in Europe.” And I think it’s because I saw Carlos Acosta. I saw him dancing and thriving at The Royal Ballet. I saw him doing Giselle to Don Quixote to… I saw him doing all of the roles, classic to bravura, every virtuoso role. And I was like, “You know what? I want to succeed because I’m working. I don’t want anything to be dependent upon my race.” And it seemed, seemingly, that it was seamless for him. Obviously it probably wasn’t, but I didn’t see any other big male, Black ballet dancers succeeding at that time. So yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
When we last talked, for your Pointe story, you said something interesting about how, when you were in Russia, race actually seemed like it was less of a factor there.

Gabe Stone Shayer:
Definitely. Yeah. And people are always baffled when I say something like that because I think we all, unfortunately, judge people by their government. So arguably speaking, if people looked at us for the past four years, I don’t think we would want to be compared to our leadership, depending on who you are. I do not!

So yeah. I mean, racism exists everywhere. But the one thing that I say about Russia is that their ignorance to my race, to my culture, to my background was not weighted in 400 years of history. Their ignorance was just because they didn’t have any Black people. There were no Black people around. They’re a very, very white country with not much diversity. And so when I got to the Academy, of course I stuck out like a sore thumb. People said things to me or asked me questions, but I quickly educated them, in one sentence or more, and after that, my time there was seamless and I felt that all of my successes there were solely based upon my work and how much time I was putting into perfecting what I was doing and getting to the level that they wanted to get me to. And in turn, I graduated at the top of my class with top marks, because we were graded. And was the featured performer principal in the graduation performance. And I was the only boy that year, in the entire Academy, to be invited to the Bloshoi Ballet audition when Sergei Filin took over the company. So I was succeeding there quite “easily” in terms of things that could be weighed down by race, I guess.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And then tell me about how things felt different when you did return to a professional ballet job in the United States.

Gabe Stone Shayer:
Yeah. So I came back. I went through a few tough months in the Studio Company. One, because the people running the Studio Company at that point kind of had a different view of what they wanted me to look like in terms of my training. And I had just come from the source of Russian ballet. So I was leaning back and looking to the side and they really didn’t like that. But again, in turn, I was the only one who got into the company that year out of the men. So, there you go.

Then in the company, again, as I said, I was being featured by Alexei Ratmansky. That was more on the neoclassical contemporary side of things. Slowly inching my way over through the years, to the more classical repertoire. I kept on sort of asking if I could be in the room for princely roles, or learn something that isn’t necessarily for the short man niche. Because people like Daniil in the short men niche, and Herman, and all these guys were able to do these princely roles. And I was confused as to why I was being featured almost as much, but not in those sorts of roles and things that call to me more so. So I asked questions, and every time I asked a question, either I was shut down by… The first few times were based upon technique. And I was like, “Great.” As a dancer, we take that. That’s criticism, that’s constructive. Great, lengthen your whatever.

But then when I’d go into a meeting and ask if I could learn a princely role, and I’d receive the feedback from my director that they’re going to go with someone who looks more the part—that gets a bit confusing. And I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but definitely as comments like that built up, my finger started pointing towards racism. And, in retrospect, it was racism. Unconscious maybe, but I don’t love giving people that benefit of saying “unconscious.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
I want to zoom out a little bit too and talk bigger picture about why you think racism is such a problem in ballet specifically. And, especially over the past several months, have you seen progress on that front that makes you hopeful? And then on the other side of that, where are you still seeing ballet institutions falling short?

Gabe Stone Shayer:
Yeah. So I would say, I think that the reason why diversity has failed in ballet in general, again speaking in general, is that I think success in general, not even just in the ballet world, but success in a lot of fields are measured by whiteness. And because we’re trying to present a romanticized view of humanity, the white look, whether it be tights or white ballets, Giselle, ethereal looks—white is associated with good and perfect. So you put a brown body in there and it disrupts this “ideal” that people have. This ideal look or idea of what perfection is supposed to look like. And so I think that’s been a big thing in American society forever—when people started entertaining, when Black people were allowed on stage, but not in the dining room of the Copacabana, let’s say, or these types of places. The lighter-skinned people were pushed in front because on black and white TV, they looked white enough. Again, whiteness was just synonymous with success and better.

And so that hasn’t changed that much in ballet. And I would say at this point, I see progress in the sense that people have to change. I don’t see progress in people’s minds actually changing to match the “should,” or what should be. You know what I mean?

I feel like George Floyd’s murder happened and people jumped at it. I mean, organizations do have to say something, but ABT jumped at the opportunity to write on Instagram, “Hey, we support Black people,” when they hadn’t done the work. The work came afterwards. And I was not happy about that. And I didn’t like that because I don’t want to present this façade anymore. I want to be truthful. And truthfully, in the work, we have so, so far to go. We have so much longer to go so much more to do. But I’m happy that we are touching the road.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. There’s an acknowledgement of the “should,” if not yet quite action on the “should.”

Gabe Stone Shayer:
Exactly.

Margaret Fuhrer:
You’ve also talked before about the importance of aesthetic inclusivity—which is touching on what you were saying just now about whiteness—this idea that inclusion in ballet would involve the way ballets look and sound on stage. Can you talk about why that type of representation is so powerful, and what it might actually look like when done successfully?

Gabe Stone Shayer:
Yes. So, I think that the stories that we’re presenting can be altered and we need people who are open to the idea of altering them. Because at the end of the day, I think these people, these directors, people in charge are so caught up in keeping the “integrity” that they don’t realize that they’ve already… These ballets have already changed 10 million times. The integrity of Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography from yesterday set by this so-and-so ballet teacher the next day, the repertoire the next day is not the same. So, you think that we’re doing the same thing that Petipa told whoever so-and-so however many years ago today? No. I mean, we can look at all the notations as much as we want. It’s not the same, our abilities aren’t the same. Our viewpoints are not the same.

So we have to match the times that we’re in. Just because someone is white, blonde-haired and blue-eyed doesn’t mean he’s German, and doesn’t mean Siegfried is a name that fits him. You know what I mean? I can play Siegfried because it’s a story and it’s a name. We’re not in Germany, we’re in America. And even if you are in Germany the world is becoming more diverse, let’s lean into it. So there’s that, with something like Swan Lake.

But then I feel like we should also tell stories that champion and romanticize, for lack of a better term, African and Black culture. That does get tough because it would be… It’s funny. I’ve been thinking about it so much and I’ve been working on some choreography, which we’ll get to, but I’ve been thinking about it so much. And I was like, “It’d be so cool if we did a ballet about like Mansa Musa or like all these real monarchs that existed in Africa that people kind of forget about, and just we fast forward to dirt and then slavery.” There’s all these amazing stories. And then I was like, “Wait a minute.” If I got $3 million, $6 million to do Mansa Musa or to do some African deity story about the Orishas and the goddesses on ABT, there’d only be seven people who could be Black. You know what I mean? It would be funny. And, I guess, my argument would have to flip over and be like, “I guess the rest of the company can play Africans.” I mean, it’s a funny argument. I just feel like we should at least be able to highlight people of all races in everything.

Margaret Fuhrer:
You also, last time we had this conversation, you were talking about incorporating Black American culture on the ballet stage. So the idea of Dapper Dan designing ballet costumes, or incorporating music from Black culture. I want to talk about the fashion side of things specifically, because fashion is clearly very important to you.

Gabe Stone Shayer:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So bigger picture there, you’ve talked in a few different interviews about the love affair between dance and fashion. Why do you think they’ve had such an interesting, synergistic relationship?

Gabe Stone Shayer:
It’s funny because in the times of Coco Chanel and… I just love saying Coco Chanel. In the times of Coco Chanel and Lacroix and Yves Saint Lauren, all these people who were creating for ballet—these fashion icons, these people who were staples in history, they were trendsetters. And so at the time that they’re making costumes for ballet, ballet and art and classical art and art in general was a part of that system. We were trendsetters, artists were trendsetters. And so it’s funny that, fast forward in time, and we’re like repeating the same ballets from 1950 and trying to make it look innovative, yet we’re living in the time with all of these amazing artists surrounding us, and we’re not tapping into it.

On the music front it’s… I love doing Company B, don’t get me wrong, go Andrew Sisters, and I love doing that type of dance. But at the same time, where are the Black artists from that time? Where’s the ballet set to the Supremes? A lot of these, for lack of a better phrase again, Black parallels exist to all of the things that we are repeating from history that we could expand upon. We could expand our lens and make it more inclusive to the culture that exists in this country next to what we’ve been doing.

Margaret Fuhrer:
You also wanted to talk about your interest in sustainable fashion specifically.

Gabe Stone Shayer:
Yeah. Yeah. So I’m into… I love looking at luxury brands. I do love the craft and the artistry that goes into high fashion. However, I feel like there is a lot of waste, and I’ve been learning more and more about it. And I do want to make clear that I’m not jumping on a high horse. I understand that with every step into this world, into the fashion world, into the ballet world, everyone learns as they go, just to preface that. But I have learned about sustainable fashion, and I think that there’s something that we could incorporate into fashion, obviously, but also into the dance world. There’s a lot of amazing innovative companies doing really cool things with science and beakers. For instance, there’s a company called PANGAIA that… There will be more about that in the near future that I can’t talk about yet, but I’m working with them in some capacity. And they came out with this line making fabric from seaweed and all these other sustainable materials. And the point being that we reduce our impact on the world in general, on our waste, and in turn art and making things doesn’t become frivolous in the eyes of people who think that we’re just wasting money and time.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So let’s talk a minute about the projects that you do have cooking. Can you tell us a little about what we should keep our eyes out for in the near future?

Gabe Stone Shayer:
Yes. So right now I’m in a studio or I’m at a studio. I just finished doing some choreography. I’m not allowed to say too much about it, but I would say, look out in the very, very beginning of April for something with me and Skylar Brandt coming out, and a really, really amazing blind composer, pianist prodigy, Matthew Whitaker. He’s so, so, so amazing. And it’s been amazing collaborating with him and making that music and making that piece for something.

And then I am going to an artist residency in the Cayman Islands—which, I know, my life sucks. It’s pretty new for dancers, at least. They just built a ballet studio and I’m working with Adji from LINES on an African themed pas de deux, amongst a bunch of other stuff. But it’s funny because we connected, and she’s half Senegalese, I’m half Ghanaian, and there’s an instrument called the Cora from that region, from West Africa. And they call it different things in different places, but same instrument. And I wanted to play with this line between classical music and I guess “tribal” music, this thin line. Because the Cora sounds kind of like a harp-guitar duo, and Adji has been learning how to play the Cora. And I’m going to try to incorporate that. And she’s been trying to think of ways to honor her culture through what she does as well. And I’m doing the same. So it was kind of a perfect meeting of minds and ideas. And I’m excited to see what we come up with and what the collaborative effort turns into.

Margaret Fuhrer:
This is Adji Cissoko?

Gabe Stone Shayer:
Yes. I didn’t attempt the last name! Thank you.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I hope I got it right! Sorry, Adji, if that’s not right.

Gabe Stone Shayer:
And then, so you know how I’ve been talking about connecting to my African roots? My grandmother’s from Ghana and she passed away a while back, and I wanted to hold something that was close to her culture. I wanted to reconnect with that culture and in doing so, I liked a few pictures from a Ghanaian ballet academy on Instagram, two different ballet academies. And then they wrote to me, and then I wrote to them and eventually ended up teaching some Zoom workshops to their students, and then a teacher training course, which I told them I wasn’t equipped to… I mean, I’ve taken the Teacher Training Course for ABT, but I don’t know if I’m equipped to teach it, but I did. And I helped out as I could. And in turn, I was able to get ABT to give the directors of each of those schools a scholarship, a full scholarship, to the National Training Curriculum at ABT so that they could certify their schools eventually. Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
From the outside, at least—you’re working on all these projects. It seems like the pandemic and the protests and your recent promotion have sort of spurred something in you. They’ve helped you find your voice as a leader, the person at the front of the room. Is that true from the inside? How have all of these things change the way that you see your art?

Gabe Stone Shayer:
It’s really funny because I’ve been told that in a few different ways. And you know, I’ve always felt like a leader in terms of my ideas. I did however want to wait until I had a platform to speak on certain things, because I felt that in a particular position of…lower rank—let’s be clear with it, at a lower rank—and under an umbrella where, love Misty Copeland, but where I was under that umbrella, and I couldn’t say something slightly different because I could be met with scrutiny. And I still can be, but I felt that the George Floyd murder and everything surrounding that slapped me in the face. And I was kind of like, “This is the end. This is it.” And especially the facade of putting out a message immediately after that from my company, I was like, “This is a lie.” And I can’t stand by this. I can’t stand by this company if I am not a voice at the table actually trying to shape this change. So I vocalized everything that was inside me and in turn, hopefully, became a catalyst for change in my company. And I’m hoping that I can keep invoking change all over the world in the dance industry, in the ballet industry.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That sort of answers my final question, which was what your goals are now, both at ABT, and also more broadly as an artist?

Gabe Stone Shayer:
Yeah. I mean that’s one of my goals, which is… That’s a huge colossal goal. And so I think it’s important for people to hear that I’m the first African-American male to graduate from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. And when that happened, I didn’t even recognize the fact that I was the first Black American blah-blah-blah to graduate, because I wasn’t highlighted that way. I was just someone who succeeded there. And in turn, I always wanted to succeed on my merit. But because of this world, because of our society, because of how the ballet world is, I will, in some people’s eyes at least, forever be a Black male ballet dancer. And that’s fine for now, because I need to be that beacon that young boys and young girls who look like me look up to and maybe, not to put myself on a plane with Carlos Acosta, but maybe I will be that for someone who is looking up and not seeing themselves. They can see me, and I’m at ABT. So that’s great. But sometimes it feels like it puts a cloud over my work. And it sucks, just to be blunt about it. I wish that I could be a soloist because I worked for it, but, sadly, whatever the reality is, it looks like and could be because there weren’t enough Black people.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s a grim note to end on.

Gabe Stone Shayer:
Sorry.

Margaret Fuhrer:
No no, that’s all right. I mean, can you talk a little bit in terms of aspirations beyond ABT as well?

Gabe Stone Shayer:
Yes. Yeah. I mean, one of my biggest dreams within the ballet world was to become a principal dancer at one of the major companies. I’m at ABT, so that became the route. Then be able to guest around the world and dance at these major companies with some of my classmates from different schools who are principals in certain places, and just dance with amazing people and collaborate and do these things. Royal Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet, Paris Opéra, La Scala, all of the above. So that was one my big goals to achieve. And I’m still going for it. So we’ll see where that leads me.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Gabe, thank you so much for your candor. As always, when we started this interview, I was like, “Let me know if there’s anything you think you might want off the record or you want to revisit.” And you were like, “Nah, I’m an open book.” Really, I appreciate that.

Gabe Stone Shayer:
I mean, I think that it’s important. I feel like we’re not encouraged to speak in the dance world. And I think—Misty was revolutionary for many reasons, but mainly because she said, “There’s something wrong here.” And no one has been really saying that. So I applaud her for that and doing it alone at that time. But you know, we need to keep going with that because there’s a lot that needs to be done. There’s a lot of work to be done. And I’m going to keep talking until I die, I guess. Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Before we say goodbye, would you tell listeners where they can keep up with you? Where can they stalk you online?

Gabe Stone Shayer:
Yeah, I would say stalking online, Instagram is pretty much my only form of social media. So anything that’s happening with me is usually there. And anything that I’m kind of dabbling in, you’ll get little tastes and teasers. So yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
What’s your handle again?

Gabe Stone Shayer:
Oh yeah. My handle is just my name. So it’s @gabestoneshayer.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thank you so much, Gabe. Really looking forward to hearing more about those projects that you were hinting at.

Gabe Stone Shayer:
Thank you. I’m excited to share them with everyone, and thank you for having me, so much.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thanks again to Gabe. He is a 1000% going to run the ballet world someday. It’s going to be him and Silas Farley. I kind of can’t wait.

We didn’t get to touch on this in our conversation, but I would encourage everyone to watch his “Runnin'” video, which he created shortly after the death of George Floyd and then recently re-posted in honor of Black History Month. It’s beautiful. We will link to it in the episode description so you can watch it yourselves.

Okay. Thanks everyone for joining us. We will be back next week for more discussion of the news moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating and keep dancing.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mind how you go, friends.

Cadence Neenan:
Bye, everyone.