Choreographer Silas Farley and composer David K. Israel were first contacted by New York City Ballet’s artistic leadership about a potential collaboration back in 2019. But the work’s roots can actually be traced further back, to 1972, the year of the Company’s legendary Stravinsky Festival, organized by Co-Founders Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine to coincide with what would have been the late Igor Stravinsky’s 90th birthday. A week-long tribute to the composer that included 30 ballets, 20 of which were world premieres, the 1972 Festival’s reverberations can be felt in the beloved works introduced to the repertory during its run, and in the stunning breadth of creativity inspired by the music. But the story of Architects of Time, Farley and Israel’s collaboration and the centerpiece of NYCB’s 2022 Stravinsky Festival, which premieres at the Gala on May 5, truly begins decades earlier—in 1946, and in West Hollywood, at Stravinsky’s 64th birthday party.
At the time, Balanchine and Stravinsky were still fairly recent emigrés to the States, and at this particular birthday celebration, Balanchine, who’d studied both music and ballet, performed a short piano piece and accompanying acrostic poem he’d written for Stravinsky. The composer was so fond of the tune that he swiftly drew up a five-part harmonization of it, and it was a copy (of a copy of a copy) of this manuscript that Israel rather fortuitously discovered in the Balanchine archive held at Harvard University back in the 1990s. “I just thought, wow, what a gift—Mr. Balanchine and Mr. Stravinsky collaborated on this beautiful little tune. The world has to know about this,” he shared in a recent conversation. Israel went on to compose several variations on the theme of that “little tune,” resulting in the score for the work he and Farley are now creating.
Israel traces his connection to New York City Ballet back to his college days, when he began sitting in on former NYCB dancer Truman Finney’s ballet classes; there, Israel observed the foundations of Balanchine technique, and composed his first piece for students at The Hartford Ballet. “That was a transformational experience, to hear my music and see it supporting dance, which I had loved for so long,” he says. “It was the moment when I realized, ‘This is what I need to be doing.’” He met American composer Leonard Bernstein shortly thereafter, and through Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, and was eventually hired by Bernstein’s estate to help with the publication of the definitive editions of their collaborations West Side Story and On the Town.
Farley says of collaborating with Israel, “To work with a composer who appreciates not just ballet in general, but Balanchine’s vision of ballet technique and choreography at a very granular level—what a gift, to have that kind of understanding and sensitivity to this particular lineage that I feel very privileged to be part of.” The choreographer and educator locates his initiation into that lineage in his early training in North Carolina, under Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride, two of New York City Ballet’s principal dancers during the ‘72 Stravinsky Festival. Farley went on to enroll at the School of American Ballet at the age of 14, becoming an apprentice with the Company in 2012 and joining as a corps de ballet member the following year.
In the midst of 2019’s run of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®, Jonathan Stafford and Wendy Whelan asked Farley to choreograph a work to Israel’s composition for the forthcoming 50th anniversary celebration of the Stravinsky Festival. None of them knew at that time that the then-dancer would retire from performing with the Company in the coming months—much less become the artist in residence in ballet at the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University for the 2020-21 school year, and, in 2021, dean of the Colburn School’s Trudl Zipper Dance Institute in Los Angeles, California. Though he has physically moved away from Lincoln Center, Farley’s interest in the history of the Company and his commitment to continuing and expanding its legacy remain intact. He describes the collaboration with Israel as “a moment to celebrate [Balanchine and Stravinsky’s] ideas, and how those ideas are alive and well now, in the bodies of the current NYCB dancers and in the musicianship of the current NYCB Orchestra.”
Farley’s move to L.A., where Israel also lives, meant that he and the composer were finally able to collaborate in person. “We never met before this project, but it’s like we knew each other already,” Farley says. “It’s like we knew the same people, dead and living—the same influences, the same heroes, the same appreciation for this particular legacy.” The two artists are adamant that though the work they are creating is an open-hearted tribute to the uniquely fruitful and era-defining partnership between Balanchine and Stravinsky, it’s also intended to serve the repertory beyond the performances of the Festival. “It’s embracing a particular tradition unapologetically, but also generously, and refreshing it, and being who we are in this moment in the history of the world and in culture,” Farley explains. “So much about the classical tradition is just about articulation, and articulation is about communication, and communication is about love—that you care enough to make yourself clear.”
Madelyn Sutton is an arts and culture writer based in Asheville, North Carolina.