What does New York City sound like? Choreographer and dancer Gabe Stone Shayer recently posed this question to composer and piano prodigy Matthew Whitaker. The inquiry came as Shayer, who was promoted to soloist at American Ballet Theatre this past September, was creating a new work to premiere at this year’s Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) virtual gala. Two days later, he had his answer.
“When we talked on Zoom about how we would collaborate with the composition, I felt immediately that he would understand me,” Shayer, the 2021 YAGP Emerging Choreographer, said to ALL ARTS about his partnership with Whitaker.
The resulting piece, titled “Journey Uptown,” will make its world premiere March 31 at 7 p.m. Eastern as part of the YAGP gala and will be available for ticket-holders for a few days afterward on-demand. Those who are unable to participate in the gala will have an opportunity to stream the performance at a to-be-announced date next month.
The performance captures both the sound of New York City and the feeling of being an artist within its perimeters.
“New York was muzzled by the pandemic, but the heartbeat of the city remained constant,” Shayer said. “New York is filled with innovators and no matter what, we always find a way.”
For Whitaker, who described being a New York-based artist as belonging “to a community that stands together to face our challenges,” this shift resulted in greater artistic focus.
“The pace [and] rhythm of the city has made me more purposeful,” the 19-year-old, blind pianist said. “It’s not about creating pieces for the sake of just creating. It is having a purpose to bring peace, unity, healing and joy.”
Presented as a filmed capture, “Journey Uptown” features Shayer alongside principal dancer Skylar Brandt, who was also promoted by American Ballet Theatre this past fall. Having grown up in New York, Brandt explained that being in the city allowed for formative experiences, such as watching American Ballet Theatre perform in the spring.
“The city has definitely quieted down over the last year, but the change of pace is kind of refreshing,” she said. “I feel hyper-focused on my craft with the subdued rhythm of New York, and I’m trying to absorb this moment in time as much as I can before everything returns to normal.”
The piece allowed for the three artists to come together and create a new work born from partnership.
“My favorite moment was when I let go of the concern of whether the piece would be fit for the dancers,” Whitaker said. “I had to forget about the visual and trust what Gabe said he was looking for in the piece. I also had to trust that what I was creating would be OK. Everything flowed nicely after that.”
This ease of creation also translated to Shayer’s experience of the piece.
“Skylar and I have worked together so many times that all she has to do is lift an eyelash, and I know how to respond as her partner and vice-versa,” he said. “I had a similar experience with Matthew.”
The collaborative process culminated during the filming of the piece, which brought all three artists together.
“It was so rewarding to see everyone’s hard work come together for the shoot,” Brandt said of the filming day. “There were so many components that went into making the film a success, and each person’s role was important.”
Typically held at Lincoln Center, the annual YAGP gala packs the stage with ballet stars and rising artists from the YAGP circuit. This year’s iteration will also feature dancers from the Mariinsky Ballet, who will perform in addition to Shayer, Whitaker and Brandt.
“As an artist in New York, I feed off of the varying pace of the city,” Shayer said. “Discovery and inspiration can never run out if you don’t let it and even after you leave you realize that it only takes dipping one foot back into New York’s current to give your ideas momentum.”
Top Image: Matthew Whitaker, Gabe Stone Shayer and Skylar Brandt in "Journey Uptown." Photo: Taylor Brandt.