Looking Back and Looking Forward with Dean Silas Farley

Trudl Zipper Dance Institute Dean Silas Farley teaches a movement class for first graders at Esperanza Elementary School during the launch of the new Jumpstart Dance program

This July, multi-faceted artist, educator, choreographer, and New York City Ballet alumnus Silas Farley joined Colburn as Dean of the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute, with Darleen Callaghan, former Director of Miami City Ballet School and North Carolina Dance Theatre School of Dance, as Associate Dean. We sat down with Silas to discuss his philosophy behind dance; his vision for the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute; and how that translates to repertoire and curriculum in the year ahead.

This interview has been edited for style, length, and clarity.

Silas Farley
[Dance is] this mutual joy-filled enterprise. And that's really the fire that sustains us through the actual challenges and difficulty of dance training. Silas Farley

What’s your philosophy behind dance?
For me, first and foremost, dance is an experience of joy. And that’s why we all got into it as little kids, because there was something in it that sparked our imagination and brought us joy. So then it’s an opportunity to share that joy as a teacher, share that joy with the students, share that delight in the work itself with the students. And also being inspired by and catching their joy. It’s this mutual joy-filled enterprise.

And that’s really the fire that sustains us through the actual challenges and difficulty of dance training, because it’s a lifestyle of discipline and it is a long obedience in the same direction. You need people to encourage you every step of the way, and to remind you that joy is the source and the power source for the work. So joy is the first thing.

And then also a sense of real reverence and curiosity about the history and development of the art of dance. That what we do right now is not dancing in isolation, in some moment, but that we’re part of a continuum of dance training and performance, and really participating in what I like to call a historically transcended community of artists whose lives have also been shaped by this same discipline. And I call those people, in the words of one of my mentors, our dancestors.

And to the degree that we are knowledgeable and connected to those people who came before us in this particular artistic practice, then we have more rocket fuel, more inspiration, more context for the work that we do. So that’d be the second thing: a real grounding of everything we do in the present with the continuity of what came before us.

How does that translate into your vision for the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute?
[Associate Dean Darleen Callaghan] and I have thought about how here at the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute, we want to honor and extend the great traditions of dance, of modern and ballet and tap, which are the genres that we have the opportunity to explore here at Colburn. And so what does that look like boots on the ground?

Whenever faculty come to teach choreography, it’s part of our practice that they also give the students a context for: What is this choreography? Who was the person who made it? What was going on in the world at that time? What was the aesthetic and philosophical worldview of the person who made it? So that we enter in as deeply as we can to the work and then know what it is that we’re now adding our voice to and our passion and our insight and our creativity to.

Another phrase I’ve used a lot talking about the vision is that we look back and we look forwards at the same time. And that really flavors all the different decisions. As we talk about programming; and we talk about See the Music, Hear the Dance; and we talk about Jumpstart; any of it, there’s always that looking in two directions at once to ground and to give vision for our present work.

Being grounded seems particularly important in today’s world.
We have roots, we have artistic roots. We didn’t fall out of the sky. I’m in a continuum, my teachers and their teachers and their teachers. It’s a genealogy. So it’s precious, and it’s exciting too, because it’s not linear, the development of the art of dance. It’s a network of relationships. And so that’s something I talk a lot about with the students.

And then with each student, their particular genealogy is totally unique to them. Because it’s not just who their teachers were, but it’s also who inspires them. Especially in the United States, in our time, an artist not only has to be a really skillful practitioner, but they have to be a philosopher who can make a case for the importance of the work that they’re doing and its contribution to the culture and its contribution to the community. Because it’s not self-evident in our country.

As you’re discussing the greater purpose in your art and work, how does that relate to being an Amplify artist at Colburn? What are you planning to do with that platform?
Oh, I just love it. It’s one of those perfect things when we can look at that overlap of looking back and looking forward. I was just thrilled to be part of the Amplify initiative from the get-go. I’m a person who talks a lot about embracing the tradition with a sense of renewal. I’m not a dismantler, I’m not a “Let’s obliterate the canon,” person. I’m a “How can we expand the canon? How can we have more voices who are going to contribute to bring richness and life from a place of devotion to the form itself?” We need more voices in the language of classical ballet.

We need more voices in the choreographers and in the teachers and in the administrators and all that kind of thing. My father is white, my mother is Black. So I’ve grown up in the overlap of those two different cultures my whole life. And it’s been such a privilege to be able to navigate both of those particular worlds pretty seamlessly throughout my journey. That’s not the case for everybody who’s from a multiethnic background. Sometimes it’s very dislocating and very disorienting. So I really don’t take for granted that I’ve seen it as a superpower my whole life, not as a liability.

But that being said, I’m excited about just being unapologetically excited about working in the language of classical ballet as a man of color. And so how is it that I’m going to be engaging with that this year?

It’s fun, because it’s a collaboration with Marlon Martinez, one of the other Amplify artists I met through a Martin Luther King Jr. Day panel discussion that Nokuthula Ngwenyama hosted earlier this year. Marlon had this idea of doing a ballet to music by Billy Strayhorn, a brilliant composer. And I thought, “Let’s do it.”

It’s a multi-dimensional exploration. It’s not music that we normally get to see realized through the language of ballet. So that’s exciting. And it’s also an opportunity for me as the Dean working with our Dance Academy to explore the life of Billy Strayhorn with the students.

See the Music, Hear the Dance is this Saturday, October 2. What is on the program?
This is the most beautiful “looking back and looking forward from now” kind of a program. It’s a program that [former Dean Jenifer Ringer and Associate Dean James Fayette] established, this wonderful collaboration between Conservatory musicians and guest dance artists. I thought, “Let’s do something that is reflective of and celebrating our LA dance community.” Because I’m brand new to it, but I’m excited to make new connections and see what’s going on here.

So the program, I’ll actually talk about the pieces in reverse order of how they’ll appear on the program. But the last piece on the program is a new solo that I’ve choreographed for one of our current Colburn faculty members, Jasmine Perry. She’s also currently a soloist with the Los Angeles Ballet. We both trained at the school affiliated with North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet).

I’ve made this solo for Jasmine set to a 10 minute solo viola piece called Sonoran Storm by Nokuthula Ngwenyama, another of the Amplify artists. Clara Bouch from the Conservatory, a magnificent violist, plays the whole 10 minutes straight, while Jasmine does four solos in the midst of the music. I’ve called the ballet Ngwenyama Variations, because it’s in the tradition of a ballet where there’re lots of different solos. It’s a conversation—a choreographic and musical conversation between the violist and the dancing.

The middle of the program is a new piece by a young woman named Ally Helman. I trained with her in New York, and she was a dancer with me in New York City Ballet. She’s now the founder and artistic director of Ballet Project OC in Orange County, which she started during the pandemic. She’s choreographing a duet for herself and a young man named Blake Lanesskog, who is a graduate of Colburn Dance Academy. He danced with Sarasota Ballet and Boston Ballet, and now he’s dancing with Ally’s company.

They’re doing a duet to a Gabrieli piece that [horn faculty] Andrew Bain has prepared with the brass ensemble. The brass ensemble is actually going to record in Zipper, and then we’re going to project the film of the brass ensemble behind the dance. So it’s going to “see the music and hear the dance” in a whole other kind of way. And I just love Gabrieli, because again, like the Strayhorn [piece], you rarely see ballets set to the brass rep. So I’m super excited about that.

And then the program is going to open looking back to Jerome Robbins, one of the great, great choreographers of all time. Co-founding choreographer of New York City ballet, great Broadway choreographer, and also an artistic force and mentor in the life of Jenifer Ringer, our former Dean.

We’re bringing down Price Suddarth from the Pacific Northwest Ballet who’s choreographed for our Dance Academy in the past. I trained with Price in New York at the School of American Ballet. He’s going to dance two solos from Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering, which is set to Chopin piano solo music. Paul Williamson from the Conservatory will play one etude and one mazurka for that.

One of the other big things for me and Darleen is that we want the audience to have the same rich context of what they’re watching in the same way we’re doing behind the scenes to prepare the dancers. So we’re going to have an onstage discussion about Jerome Robbins with [Jenifer Ringer] and Price. There’s going to be a separate conversation with me, Andrew Bain, Blake Lanesskog, and Ally Helman talking about the Gabrieli piece. And then I’ll also introduce the Sonoran Storm variations piece. They’re going to be like living program notes on the stage, so that it’s interactive and joyful for everybody. I’m so excited about this program.

It sounds incredible. We also launched our new Jumpstart Dance program this semester. What went into that?
The launch was the brainchild of me and Darleen in close collaboration Nate Zeisler and Jazmín Morales [in the Center for Innovation and Community Impact], we developed the new Jumpstart Dance program to build on the vision for Jumpstart that’s already existed for years in the music side.

We went over to Esperanza Elementary School a week before school started. I taught a movement class for 20 first graders. Of them, we picked five students to start immediately in either Pre-Ballet II or Ballet I.

The reason we chose a small number is because we want to give them wraparound support. We want to be able to fully support our Jumpstart students with dancewear, tuition, all the different needs that the student might have, and immediately have them be a part of our community.

There are lots of different schools of thought about how to do community engagement. Some people go out into the schools to teach. Our experience shows that the best way for dance and for ballet is to bring the students into the on-campus community from the very start. So it’s not like there are two [separate dance] tracks, there’s one. We’re all one school.

Our goal is for the students to be able to continue training for as long as they have the desire to train with us. We’re just trying to support them and help them on their journey—give them the resources and the encouragement they need to be able to thrive in this opportunity. This, and all Jumpstart programs, are fully supported by donors through their annual gifts, and we couldn’t do this without them. We are so incredibly grateful for this community of support and Colburn, and to share this vision with our donors.