For art patrons, 2020 will go down as the unfinished season. That's a particularly unfortunate turn for one performer.

Like countless Central Ohioans, BalletMet dancer Gabriel Gaffney Smith has not been back to work since mid-March. After BalletMet’s season was upended by the coronavirus pandemic, Smith stopped by the company’s headquarters on Mount Vernon Avenue to pick up his belongings but has stayed away since. It was an abrupt ending to what Smith had hoped would be a carefully choreographed close to his dancing career.

Earlier in the year, the 35-year-old dancer decided to retire to focus on making visual art, composing music and designing the occasional dance sequence for others. “It took years and years for the decision to finally say, ‘You know what? I think this is the year,’” says Smith, whose choice was eased by the knowledge that he had two standout shows left on the schedule—a chance to go out on a high note.

In April, Smith would have reprised one of his signature roles, Don Jose, in Gustavo Ramirez Sanso’s acclaimed ballet “Carmen.maquia.” In May, he was slated to choreograph new work as part of the “New Voices” project. Losing both performances—the first, a reunion with one of his favorite choreographers; the second, a chance to prove his own choreography skills—was especially jarring. “The last two programs for me were the highlight of the season,” he says. “We were just about to hit that stride.”

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On March 12, just three weeks from its planned opening, “Carmen.maquia” was postponed. Then, “New Voices”—for which Smith was set to create a dance in which he would not have performed—was canceled. “We all kind of held our breath and said, ‘You know, maybe that can still happen,’” he recalls. “But then, pretty soon … I said, ‘I think the season’s done. I think things are going to be shut down.’”

Smith, a BalletMet member since 2008, was left to retire alone, running out the clock on his career at home rather than in front of the audience he loved to entertain.

“I’ve seen a lot of dancers transition and retire,” says BalletMet artistic director Edwaard Liang. “The one thing that I believe, long-term, isn’t going to be the best psychologically is not to have closure, is not to celebrate something that is so important and meaningful in their lives.”

Smith, however, takes a pragmatic view. He treasures the time he spent preparing the scrapped productions and is relishing working in his own garage studio. There, he composes music—he hopes to build a soundproof room for recording—and makes wood relief pieces, some of which have been shown at Brandt-Roberts Galleries in the Short North.

Yet a sense of loss—for a career that was canceled by the coronavirus rather than concluded on his terms—persists. Although plans for BalletMet’s 2020–21 season remain unclear, Liang intends to give his longtime dancer a proper farewell.

“There wasn’t even a transition,” Liang says. “It was so quick, and it was so fast. I hope that in time he can process all of this, and that, next season, we can give him some sort of sendoff.”


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