Stepping into the Balanchine-Stravinsky continuum

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Stepping into the Balanchine-Stravinsky continuum
Dancers during a rehearsal of Silas Farley’s “Architects of Time” in New York, April 28, 2022. Farley’s dance for the New York City Ballet’s Stravinsky festival has a score by David K. Israel that builds on a poem Balanchine wrote and set to music for Stravinsky. Braylen Dion/The New York Times.

by Roslyn Sulcas

NEW YORK, NY.- “Ecarté, y’all!” choreographer Silas Farley called out, demonstrating the position he wanted by stretching out an extremely long arm (he is 6-foot-5), angling his shoulders, head and neck to the side, and curving his hand decoratively upward. “That’s it!” he said enthusiastically as the New York City Ballet dancers in his new dance, “Architects of Time,” embellished the movement with this detail.

“It’s so wonderful to be working with the company, because you can unapologetically delight in classical ballet and these kinds of nuances,” Farley, 27, said backstage after the rehearsal. Then he laughed. “I am such a ballet nerd.”

“Architects of Time,” set to a score by David K. Israel, has excellent nerd antecedents. The music is based on an acrostic poem that choreographer George Balanchine wrote in 1946 as a birthday present for composer Igor Stravinsky. Balanchine, who had studied music in his youth, set the poem to a simple melody, which Stravinsky then elaborated. The manuscript is inscribed in Stravinsky’s hand: “Birthday choral tune by George Balanchine, harmonized by Igor Stravinsky, Hollywood, California, June 18, 1946.”

Israel discovered a photocopy of the manuscript in the Harvard Theater Collection in 1993. And now, almost 30 years later, Farley’s ballet, set to a score inspired by that birthday gift, will have its premiere Thursday at City Ballet’s spring gala — part of the company’s two-week Stravinsky Festival, which commemorates the remarkable 1972 festival staged by Balanchine in honor of the composer.

“I have so much love for this history, for the creative relationship between Balanchine and Stravinsky,” Farley said, “for the 1972 festival and the extraordinary works that came out of that. It was an honor to be commissioned at all, but to have something with these historical resonances is extraordinary.”

The ballet’s title, he said, comes from something Balanchine says in the documentary “In Balanchine’s Classroom.” Farley delivered the line in a thick Russian accent: “Composer is architect of time, and we have to dance to it.”

Farley, who tends to speak in full, quotable paragraphs, is unusual for his clarity of focus, drive and ambition. A former City Ballet dancer, he left the company at 26, just as he was beginning to get soloist roles, saying that he wanted to become a leader “in a really substantive way in the art form.” Less than a year later, he was appointed the dean of the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute at the Colburn School in Los Angeles.

“To have a successful ballet career, you have to give everything to it,” Farley said as he walked with his 6-month-old son across a meeting room toward his wife, Cassia, a former dancer who designed the costumes for the new piece. “I didn’t want to dedicate my youth to that. I wanted to put my energy and enthusiasm into growing as a teacher, a scholar, a choreographer.”

Farley was introduced to ballet at 6, when a visiting ballet company performed at the church his family attended in Charlotte, North Carolina. (He is the youngest of seven children.) “It was the power and poetry of the male dancers that struck me,” he said. At the North Carolina Dance Theater School, his teachers included former City Ballet stars Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux.

One day, while poring over ballet books in the library, he saw a photograph of McBride. “I realized that through my teacher, I was directly linked to this Balanchine man I kept reading about!” he said. “I thought, I want to be in the New York City Ballet, to be part of that lineage. I felt a sense of calling.”

At the School of American Ballet in New York, Farley didn’t just apply himself to dancing. He choreographed for workshops, taught classes, read voraciously, haunted the Metropolitan Museum and applied to Harvard. (He was accepted on a full scholarship but chose to join City Ballet instead.)

Farley was still a member of City Ballet when, in late 2019, Jonathan Stafford, the company’s artistic director, and Wendy Whelan, the associate director, asked him if he would choreograph to a score based on the Balanchine-Stravinsky exchange. They had heard about Israel’s find through Zippora Karz, a former City Ballet dancer who knew Israel, and decided to commission a score for the commemorative Stravinsky festival. “I thought Silas would be the perfect collaborator, given this history,” Stafford said.

Israel said he wrote the initial musical sketches soon after finding the manuscript. He quoted the poem — “Name day and birthday/ Guests, noise and animation/ Get drunk on Grand Marnier/ Don’t forget a glass for me” — and explained that the first letter of each line spelled “Igor” in the original Russian. Balanchine’s melody for the poem was beautiful, he said. “I thought, This can’t just sit here.”

He returned to New York, where he was working as an editor for the Bernstein estate, and composed many snippets that were variations on the original theme. Over the years, as talks with choreographers and ballet companies failed to bear fruit, he continued to work on the piece. “I thought, 'Some day someone is going to want this,'” he said.

That day came in 2019 when Whelan called Israel to commission the score for the coming Stravinsky Festival. “I blacked out!” Israel said.

He and Farley worked together over Zoom, going through the musical sketches and choosing which to develop. Then Farley listened to the score over and over again. “I mapped out which sections would be solos, pas de deux or group dances, and the counts for the dancers, but the real movement invention was very visceral and in the moment” in the studio, he said.

Claire Kretzschmar, a dancer in the work, said Farley “really uses ballet’s vocabulary, with a particular attentiveness to the Balanchine style we have been raised in, which is not always the case with choreographers today.”

She added: “He is very clear, very musical, very encouraging but not afraid to criticize. You feel it’s because he loves the craft and appreciates you as a dancer.”

There are many moments in the ballet, Farley said, that refer to other works in the repertory. “Sometimes it’s intentionally a reference, like a movement that Calliope does in ‘Apollo,’ but mostly they just emerged organically,” he said.

Lars Nelson, another dancer in the work, said, “Without lifting phrases, he is assembling this beautiful movement with constant reverence and thanks toward the great dancers and ballets that came before.”

Farley said he didn’t feel particularly nervous about his ballet. “It will bear the fruit it will bear, and its origins are something that somebody else made,” he said, adding that Balanchine and Stravinsky knew that “the ideas they tapped into were not their own but part of a continuum.”

What is important, he said, is to honor the two men. “I hope the piece will show that the ideas they were devoted to are eternal and vibrant and vital right now.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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