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Finding Inspiration in Ballet, Spirituals and Prison Songs

By: Susan Reiter
Date: Mar 06, 2019

Dancer-choreographer Silas Farley debuts Songs From the Spirit at the Metropolitan Museum


Last July, Silas Farley spent a day at California's San Quentin State Prison listening to music composed by inmates. The setting was a stark contrast to the grand stages on which Farley, an elegant 24-year-old member of New York City Ballet, usually performs roles such as the Cavalier in The Nutcracker or a suitor in The Sleeping Beauty.

But his reason for going was connected to dance: He was searching for compositions to incorporate into the score for Songs from the Spirit, a three-part, site-specific work he was commissioned to choreograph for MetLiveArts. Farley, his wife Cassia Farley and five others dancers will perform its world premiere this weekend at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "It's been a long process, which is great," Farley says of the piece, which will be danced to live spirituals and recordings of the San Quentin songs. "All that time allowed it to organically develop."

Farley has been choreographing almost as long as he's been dancing. When he was studying at North Carolina Dance Theatre School of Dance (now known as the Charlotte Ballet Academy), students were invited to choreograph and Farley leaped at the opportunity at age 11. "That first piece was very much in the classical vocabulary and that's what I've always loved: To find creative combinations of those movements we perfect in ballet class, and to give them vital choreographic applications," he says. "I was very interested in dance history right from the beginning, reading a lot about the history of ballet. And I was always -- on my own time -- making up dances, really enjoying that creative part of it."

Once he arrived at the School of American Ballet, Farley was an active participant in its Student Choreography Workshops and was selected to create works for the New York Choreographic Institute. Joining NYCB in 2013, he became notable in the corps de ballet for his fluent technique, graceful stage presence and the evident joy he takes in the challenges of the company's diverse repertory.

While at SAB, Farley was given a membership to the Metropolitan Museum and he quickly became a regular visitor. He was introduced to Limor Tomer, the director of MetLiveArts, following a presentation several years ago, and she led him on a walk through the museum's vast and varied spaces so they could identify potential sites for dance.

"My project came about very seamlessly in a way I could never have anticipated," Farley says, noting that soon after his tour with Tomer, he created a solo to the spiritual "Guide My Feet, Lord" for his church's Sunday service. "I thought that piece might be a seed of a larger ballet that would be a journey through the museum, with the unifying musical thread being old spirituals."


The San Quentin songs came in when Tomer turned Farley on to the podcast Ear Hustle, which explores life in the California prison. That's where he first heard the inmates' music. "That got us thinking about this idea of exile, and the idea of creativity and its relation to captivity," Farley says. "It was amazing to hear how complementary the new pieces that they've written are to the spirituals."

Songs from the Spirit takes place in three different areas of the Met, with the audience following the dancers. It begins in the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery for Assyrian Art, proceeds to the Astor Court in the Asian Wing and ends in the Charles Engelhard Court in the American Wing. The 75-minute work will be performed eight times from Friday, March 8 through Sunday, March 10, and is free with museum admission.

Farley's fervent belief in ballet remains the essence of Songs from the Spirit, even as it explores contemporary ideas and contrasting music. Classical steps are present throughout, even though the dancers are in sneakers and performing to rap, spoken word and gospel. "There's a big range of styles, but the ballet vocabulary really provides a unifying thread between all the sections," he says.

Just as Farley made that illuminating trip to San Quentin last year, he wants Songs from the Spirit to serve as an enlightening "pilgrimage for all participants -- audience and performers," he says. "My hope is that everyone who sees it will be able to find something of themselves in the story, and something that will give them strength. Because we're crossing so much spiritual and artistic geography, I hope people will have many places where they feel they can connect to it."


Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.

Top image: Silas Farley at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

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Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages.