With a name like Grace, long legs, flexible hips and an innate elegance, Grace Shibley seems to have been destined for ballet. But when asked what comes easily for her, a smile breaks out on her pretty, heart-shaped face: “I don’t feel like anything comes easily!”
Her teachers might put it differently, citing Shibley’s work ethic, her ability to listen closely and her habit of taking every opportunity to learn as factors in her success. “Jumping is hard for me, turning is not a strong point,” continues Shibley, and then she pauses again as though the list goes on and on. “I was one of those girls whose limbs flailed around.”
There’s no flailing these days. Shibley dances in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s corps with a beautiful specificity. She understands shape and line, tension and release, and she exhibits a refined sense of musical phrasing. She opens herself up to the audience with the quiet glow of someone who used to be shy. Whether she’s dancing with the dreamy grace of Afternoon of a Faun or the swanky sass of Ellington Suite, the movement seems a natural expression of her inner being.
Afternoon of a Faun was one of the first pieces Shibley learned when she joined OBT in 2007. Third cast, in a four-performance run, the chances that she would get to dance it onstage were pretty slim. But dance it she did.
That season, Shibley was also cast as the female lead in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, and the following season she danced four principal roles. Each has come as a surprise to Shibley—and, in some ways, to OBT’s Artistic Director Christopher Stowell. He sometimes gives dancers an opportunity to learn a role that might be suitable for them later in their careers. But Shibley, Stowell says, “is good at pulling the performance together without help. If working in the corner she can turn it into a full interpretation, she should get an opportunity to do it. Nobody has to explain to Grace what something’s about, or where to make an effect, or what impact this dance is supposed to have. Those big ideas are clear to her.”
At 20 years old, Portland-born Shibley is actually the same age as OBT. In some ways, they’ve grown up together. She transferred to OBT’s school shortly before Stowell came to the company in 2003. She never left. Summer intensives elsewhere didn’t make sense to her, professionally or economically. She had an offer of a traineeship at San Francisco Ballet, but turned it down when OBT offered her a company contract that same year.
What’s in store for this delicate-looking ballerina who reminds people of Suzanne Farrell, Tanaquil Le Clercq and Audrey Hepburn? She seems to enjoy herself, whether she’s dancing lead roles or corps ones. “I like being part of something bigger,” says Shibley, “like being a corps swan in Swan Lake. It feels good standing with everybody in our matching tutus. It kills your feet, but the music is beautiful and you feel like there’s moonlight on your neck. You’re part of making this exquisite ballet happen. I can’t imagine anything more fulfilling than that.”
At a Glance
Name: Grace Shibley
Company: Oregon Ballet Theatre
Training: Portland Metro Performing Arts Center and School, and School of Oregon Ballet Theatre
Favorite role performed: The Ballerina in Jerome Robbins’ The Concert
Dream role: Terpsichore in Balanchine’s Apollo