I am a ballet dancer and a Black man, in that order. I left the United States to train at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow at age 15 so that people would see my skill first and not my skin. It was a naïve dream, I realize now, since unlike painters, whose work can be regarded without their presence, I am both the artist and the artwork, and there can be no separation.
But at the time, I wanted to be like Monet or Janis Joplin — artists remembered for their haystacks and raspy voice, not their whiteness. In Russia, I found this freedom. There was no history to support American stereotypes, and so I was so alien, so foreign, that I was the author of my past, present and future for the first time. Also, the Russians didn’t care about diversity, so they didn’t plaster my face on a billboard or in a catalog to show they filled a quota.
My nearly 12 years dancing for the American Ballet Theater could not have been more different. Back in the United States, my skin color seemed to snap into the spotlight. I tended to get cast in swarthy, sinister roles, like the evil sorcerer in “Swan Lake,” and subservient, exotic roles like the lead fakir in “La Bayadère,” where I played a beggar. When I was given the title role of Harlequin in “Harlequinade,” a significant role, I was still playing what is essentially a comic court servant. I couldn’t help feeling humiliated, like I was doing a shuck and jive. Would I ever be ready in their eyes for a more aristocratic role?
The leadership of the American Ballet Theater does not agree with the way I am characterizing my tenure with the company. They said I lacked the technical and artistic skills for the roles I sought. But if so, why did I get promoted to soloist in 2020 if they didn’t think I was ready?
Ballet is a notoriously hierarchical art, with great emphasis on paying one’s dues. Casting can be defined by the way roles have been cast before, including body type and racial characteristics. In this way, the present is constrained by the past. Nevertheless, I tried to focus on building my skills, but it pained me to see a Black dancer cast as a maid or to notice dancers of color as second and third understudies.
“Historical accuracy” is a part of the company’s DNA. In 1997, ABT cast Desmond Richardson as Othello, making him its first Black principal dancer. It was a win for many Black ballerinos watching, but it was also bittersweet. This ballet takes human tragedy and transforms it into something gorgeous. It is a language of embodied emotion that transcends the continent where it originated. Did the ballet really not understand the power that Desmond Richardson’s example and the role of Othello holds — its universality?
In 2020, ABT’s cautious approach to both race and art was upended when George Floyd was murdered. After years of rebuffing my concerns about how I was being cast, suddenly the company promoted me to soloist. Another Black dancer, Calvin Royal III, was promoted to principal dancer. A renewed call was made to company members to serve on a diversity and equity committee; they needed us to do outreach programs in Harlem and other underserved communities.
I had trained to be an elite dancer, not a Black elite dancer. Emphasizing my race before my skill infantilizes me; after all, there is no such thing as a Caucasian-American dancer. Further, separating me from my non-Black peers reinforces my otherness. Yet these were the kinds of grand gestures I saw then. Many companies — and not just in the arts — were rushing to promote Black stories and Black faces in the name of progress. But if there’s one thing I know from being a dancer, it’s how to spot who has soul and who is phoning it in. In the three years since the death of George Floyd, this country’s racial reckoning has been as phony as it comes.
“It’s happened,” the journalist Cerise Castle wrote on Twitter recently. “My white neighbors Black Lives Matter sign has come down.”
Is anyone really surprised? This is a country that has always valued symbol over substance.
In “The Art of the Deal,” Donald Trump says of his empty promise to build the world’s tallest building, “the point is that we got a lot of attention.” The same might be said of the motivations of many white institutions these past few years. It’s always been about them — their egos and their dollars. It still isn’t about us.
Nothing bothered me more than being cast in “Lifted,” a new “groundbreaking” show designed to feature only ABT’s Black dancers. Even though “Lifted” was created by a Jamaican-born choreographer, Christopher Rudd, and my Black colleagues felt differently, I never saw it as cause for celebration. It made me uncomfortable to do something so abruptly “woke” given how I had been cast and dismissed in the past.
I later learned they hoped to someday make an all-Latino cast of the ballet. My brain exploded at the arbitrariness and absurdism. Were they going to make a third one all-Asian? A fourth all Native American?
It felt as if we had reverted to the era of ABT when there were separate “Negro” and “Spanish” units.
In 1940, ABT opened its first season with “Black Ritual,” a modern work by the white choreographer Agnes de Mille. A far cry from the innocence of “Giselle,” “Black Ritual” tells the story of a group of “primitive” women who murder one of their group in a voodoo-style sacrifice. Like “Lifted,” “Black Ritual” was supposed to be avant-garde and showcase the talent of ABT’s Black dancers.
Yet in the program for “Black Ritual,” none of the Black dancers were listed by name. Their individuality had been erased, and more than 80 years later, I felt as if mine were disappearing, too. Painfully aware that I might ruin my career, and be rejected by my community, I boarded a plane to Paris.
Like Josephine Baker and James Baldwin before me, in Paris I found space to breathe. Away from the safety of institutions, but also out from under their shadow, I performed in art galleries and choreographed cabarets. I learned a new word for myself — métis, meaning a person of mixed race — and felt oddly at home when my French friends told me it means someone who is beautiful because of their differences.
Back in New York City now, I think about Nina Simone, who never got to be the classical concert pianist she wanted to be, and how much it hurts to love a thing that doesn’t love you back. I wonder if America will ever see me as I see myself — a prince instead of a pawn.
Gabe Stone Shayer is a soloist with the American Ballet Theater, which he joined in 2012.
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