It was March 1, and Silas Farley was coming off the best season yet at New York City Ballet. A member of the corps de ballet since 2013, his leading roles that winter included a poetic, vivid rendering of Prince Ivan in George Balanchine’s “Firebird,” opposite Sara Mearns.
His potential, it seemed, was finally being realized. And he relished it: Mr. Farley, 26, whose expansive dancing and devotion to the art of ballet was palpable each time he stepped onstage, loved experiencing the weight and responsibility of being a featured dancer.
So what did he do next? In his follow-my-own-path-kind-of-way, he retired.
“I was talking to my wife, Cassia, and I just started to express feeling a real sense of fulfillment in that performance aspect of my life, and a greater and greater hunger to cultivate other aspects of my artistry and intellect,” he said in a phone interview from Charlotte, N.C., where he was visiting his family.
“My hope is to become a leader in a really substantive way in the art form,” he explained. “And I know that there are so many other facets of leadership experience and education that I don’t have.”
That he has the potential to end up in a leadership role is no great leap. I first laid eyes on Mr. Farley about 11 years ago when he was attending the City Ballet-affiliated School of American Ballet and acting as an unofficial ballet master for his fellow students’ choreographic workshop. Tall for his age — now 6 feet 6 inches he still towers over most dancers — he wore a unitard with tube socks and referred to himself as “the cheerleader with a notebook.”
Even then, he seemed self-possessed beyond his years. “It’s sad to think about it like this, but it’s up to us — we’re the generation that when the people who knew Balanchine die, it’s going to be up to us to keep it alive and I get so choked up about it sometimes,” he told me at the time, referring to George Balanchine, City Ballet’s founding choreographer. “I’m in the cafeteria, and I’m like: ‘Guys! Do you realize? We’re in the front lines!’”
Mr. Farley, who said he had been considering his dancing future before the coronavirus pandemic hit, will be an artist-in-residence in ballet in the dance division at the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University for the 2020-21 school year. He has also started attending Harvard Extension School. After high school, he was accepted to Harvard on a full scholarship; at the time, he chose dance. Now he hopes eventually to study management there.
But he’ll still maintain a connection with City Ballet and the school. Mr. Farley, who serves on the board of the George Balanchine Foundation, will continue his work on the company’s podcast. In his segment, “Hear the Dance,” he explores the company’s history and repertory. He has taught at the school for years — in 2012, he and another dancer were chosen to be teaching fellows there — and will continue to do so when he can.
As a student, Mr. Farley was “a very tall, beautiful looking young man, very regal,” the school’s chairman of faculty, Kay Mazzo, said. “He had this hunger, and he wanted to learn as much as he could and pass it on. He’s been so involved with the history of ballet, and I think he wants to be such a big part of its future, which he will be — an important part of it. He is just the epitome of really taking one’s art form to the highest level.”
He’ll also continue to choreograph. In keeping with these social distanced times, he has created digital dances for the Works & Process virtual commissions project, a Guggenheim series (out this summer) and the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York; he will also create a piece for the Washington Ballet.
“It’s wild — I’ve become a dance filmmaker because of all that’s happened,” Mr. Farley said. “I’m able to be right at the cutting edge of what’s happening in the art form because we have to adapt. We have to think creatively.”
Mr. Farley, who hails from Charlotte — he grew up in a house with nine people including his parents — knows how to do both. “We need to keep the art form thriving, not just on life support,” he said. “I want to be part of that. So if that means it’s Zoom, let’s do it. If that means it’s socially distanced and I teach the same class three units a day just to get the same amount of students through as one, I’ll do it. Whatever it takes.”
While visiting his family at his parents’ spacious new townhouse in Charlotte — a gift from Matthias, his brother, who plays for the New York Jets — Mr. Farley spoke about his plans and hopes for his former company.
What follows are edited excerpts from that conversation.
What interests you in dance apart from actually dancing?
From the beginning I knew I wanted to be a dancer and a teacher and a choreographer and a ballet master and a scholar. And I love performing. I really do feel like I’m still at the height of my powers of what I can do as a dancer.
I can use movement as illustration as opposed to movement as performance. That’s more exciting to me than continuing the rhythm of doing class, rehearsal, performance. And I couldn’t have said that until coming off the winter season.
What did you love about it?
I got to do multiple performances of all of the different parts and to grow in them and find nuances in the choreography. But I also was able to know that that wasn’t the ultimately fulfilling thing for this next chunk of my life.
I don’t doubt that I may have been promoted soon. That’s kind of immaterial to me now because I feel really calm and peaceful in my spirit knowing that to do the featured work at that level it has to be your everything.
We’ve had many conversations about race and ballet. How do you see the current moment? Have you attended to any protests?
I have not. When a lot of the big protests were happening in Dallas, for example, I was teaching every day for the summer intensive at Dallas Ballet Center. I’m working on a short dance film that’s a very direct artistic response to what’s happening. I may not be actually in the street protesting at this point, but I feel that the artistic processing of what’s happening is as important for that work toward justice. You need the direct action and you also need the artistic space for people to be able to reflect.
Do you feel that the black body is seen differently now and has it changed your relationship with your own?
I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” a few years ago. He talks about bodies pulled apart — that there’s an irreducible physicality to the violence that racism does. So, yes, I think people are thinking differently about the black body, but to be able to see the whole person: That their blackness is obviously key in who they are, but it’s not the totality of who they are.
I don’t want people to be colorblind. There’s that thing people say, “I don’t even see you as black.” And then you almost want to ask them, ‘Well, are you blind?’”
What do you hope for City Ballet?
My hope is that the company will live up to its foundational vision, which is that it would be half black and half white, which at the very least means epic leaps forward in terms of the racial representation and multiethnic nature of the company.
There is now a concerted effort for real work to be done. That you were not just seeing brown and black and Asian faces on the stage, but that these dancers were being cultivated to consistently anchor the repertory.
To move beyond the corps de ballet?
We’ve had that. That’s fantastic. But meaningfully anchoring the principal ballet roles.
You were being cultivated in a way that could inspire coming generations. Why give that up?
I’ll be able to cultivate and develop people of all different ethnic backgrounds even more directly by being a teacher and choreographer and scholar. I can lay it down because [the City Ballet dancers] Chris Grant is coming up after me and Kennard Henson is coming up after me and LaJeromeny Brown is coming up after me and Victor Abreu and Preston Chamblee.
We need all of this stuff about systemic racial justice to be worked out in the makeup of who’s writing the dance history. Who’s choreographing the ballets? Who’s teaching? Who’s training teachers? Who’s lecturing? I can take up all of those other dimensions.