As one movement ended, choreographer Silas Farley called out toward the stage, “To the trees! To the trees!” Farley wasn’t chasing away errant cicadas or instructing the dancers to leap higher. He was shouting to the crew filming his “Werner Sonata,” using a camera perched on a long, crane-like stick called a “jib.” “It’s like you’re able to sit in seats all over the theater all at once [or] like you’re a bird flying over the stage,” Farley said of the effect.
As it all came together, Kyle Werner, composer of the sonata for violin and piano that inspired the dance, was looking at a monitor under a production tent, overwhelmed. He had never seen his music choreographed live at this scale. “They got that one take with this one long, slow movement in the camera. And it was just riveting. I was in tears the whole time,” he says. “The natural lighting and then the wind coming in with the crescendos in the music — you just couldn’t ask for anything better than that.”
This seemed especially true after a year of being hamstrung by a pandemic, with performers largely confined to Zoom dance classes and living room rehearsals, wearing masks when in multiples and never touching.
“The more boundless dimensions of ballet movement weren’t accessible because we were confined to these little spaces wherever we live,” says Farley. “To be able to come back into an environment where you can really move again — it’s so precious and there’s that much more joy in it because we were all deprived of it.”
Last June, Farley quit dancing with the New York City Ballet at 26 to pursue choreography and teaching. A year later, he’s not missing dancing — because he never really stopped. He demonstrates combinations to students and company members with the sharpness of a performer fresh off the stage. And when he’s dreaming up choreography, “in my soul and in my spirit, it’s like I get to dance every part of the ballet,” he says.
It’s unlikely that when Farley made the decision to stop performing — one he arrived at before the pandemic hit — he saw filmmaking in his immediate future. In conversation, he circles back to the traditions of classical ballet — George Balanchine and John Neumeier are among the canonical choreographers he admires — like returning to a well-paved path in the woods. He extols the ritual of the ballet class, the importance of building on the fundamental steps, and the “physical connectivity” between the dancers and audience. But when he reentered the industry as a young choreographer with a classical bent, he entered a world that looked more like a postmodern experiment.
Still, Farley found his footing. Collaborating with Werner, he choreographed a short video for the Guggenheim’s “Works & Process” series as well as a piece that was performed at Southern Methodist University, where he spent the last year as an artist-in-residence. His schedule shows no sign of slowing — after filming for the Washingon Ballet wrapped, he headed to Colorado, where he is choreographing a piece for American Ballet Theatre that will premiere live onstage at the Green Box Arts Festival in June. In July he will start as the dean of the Colburn School, a performing arts academy in Los Angeles.
“Werner Sonata,” set to debut June 18 on Marquee TV alongside Dana Genshaft’s “Orpheus,” is Farley’s first major company commission. It’s also the largest production the Washington Ballet has done since it started premiering work on Marquee TV, a streaming service for arts and culture offerings, in November 2020.
Werner likens the ballet to neoclassical abstract pieces of the mid-20th century. It has simple, elegant costumes, designed by Farley’s wife, Cassia; no particular story line; and a bare-bones set including a stage and the natural backdrop of Wolf Trap. Such austerity allows for a certain timelessness, but it’s also tempting to interpret the work as a reflection of events leading up to today. Written in 2015, the sonata moves from a pleasant prelude to a dark middle section called “Lament” to an exultant finale. Farley says Werner’s final movement captures “the openness and clarity that comes on the other side of sorrow.”
Werner and Farley met in 2014 and bonded over a brunch that they say “turned into a dinner.” Their appreciation for the histories of their art forms sparked hours of conversation. “The bottom line is that we’re both just very much nerds in our respective classical traditions,” says Werner. The composer describes Farley as “someone who feels very young and very old at the same time.”
Julie Kent, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, uses similar words to describe Farley, who she says maintains a “deep hunger for knowledge” about ballet’s past while creating works that feel “completely fresh and modern.”
“In the sort of classicism that Silas is bringing, you see that growth is like a line, a continuum with arrows on both ends,” Kent says. “You can reach back, you can reach forward.”
In “Werner Sonata,” Farley borrows as much from ballet history — a jump performed by Maria Tallchief in “Firebird,” a port de bras (arm movement) echoing those of the principal dancer, Nikiya, in “La Bayadere” — as recent history. Because of coronavirus restrictions that were in place when they began rehearsing the piece on May 17, the only partner work is performed by two couples who live together — Nicole Graniero and Oscar Sanchez; Nardia Boodoo and Andile Ndlovu. The rest of the dancers function as soloists, moving in flock-like patterns and creating an image of parallel states of solitude.
While the pandemic lives on subtly in the choreography, Farley sees the piece as a bridge back to live performance. Whereas some of the Washington Ballet’s earlier Marquee TV videos used more involved film language, this work is made for a proscenium. Wide-angle still shots retrain the viewer to choose where to look, as they might when viewing a live performance. It’s not quite a dance film, but a “dance that was filmed,” Kent says.
Over the course of the production, the world gradually opened up. Farley started rehearsals with only seven masked dancers in the studio at a time. By the end of rehearsals on May 31, restrictions had lifted, and the entire cast of 14 dancers could practice in the same studio. On the day of filming, maskless dancers and colleagues shared hugs and coffee. A few days later, at their annual gala outside at the Kennedy Center, they performed the final movement of “Werner Sonata” before a crowd of 400.
“There is that sense of hope and just new life in there,” Kent says, reflecting on the piece the morning of the gala. “To me, it feels like a chapter turn.”