Kayla Farrish, Put Away the Fire, dear
Kerine Kumars (left) and Kayla Farrish in Put Down the Fire, dear | Credit: Elyse Mertz

When choreographer/dancer Kayla Farrish and her company, Decent Structures Arts, make their appearance at San Francisco’s ODC Theater, March 8–10, it won’t be the first time that Farrish herself has danced across this Mission District stage. In 2016, as a member of Kate Weare Company, she was part of the cast for Weare’s masterpiece Marksman. Eight years later she is bringing her own troupe and performing in her own style, which she developed during the intervening years.

Farrish’s piece, Put Away the Fire, dear, is a new evening-length work turning the archetypes of Old Hollywood and American cinema into a live performance exploration of what happens when the roles of the romantic lead — the hardboiled detective or the femme fatale — are inhabited by BIPOC performers. It attempts to combat the marginalizing of people of color that pervaded films of that era, when non-white actors were restricted to highly stereotyped characters.

In a phone interview, Farrish recalled that her interest in dance began at a young age. “My dad was into dance recreationally, along with my sister and different folks in my family. I was really excited learning from them and dancing with them. I grew up dancing in the church and watching different musicals that he would show us. Then I ended up choreographing and creating a lot while learning as many forms as I could — modern, ballet, jazz, and liturgical African. I loved improvising, creating, and choreographing.”

When it came time for Farrish to go to college, naturally she pursued a degree in dance. She was also interested in music, film, and writing. “I was always experimenting with those things,” she says, “so I decided to go to the School of Dance at the University of Arizona.”

“They have a department where you can study multiple forms of dance instead of concentrating on one.  I wanted to go where I can just continue to soak up many forms. So I took a photography class, and also music classes and hip-hop studies. I’ve always loved writing as well. I’m saying this because it preempted a lot, later on. I would have these different visions or visuals and think, ‘could this be a dance performance or maybe this feels like a film scene that tells the story with portraits of people. How can I create that?’”

After graduating summa cum laude in 2013, Farrish decided go to New York City to expand her range through freelancing with different companies and choreographers — Sleep No More NYC, Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion, Kate Weare Company, Helen Simoneau Danse, Rashuan Mitchell +  Silas Reiner, Aszure Barton & Artists, and others.

She went on to develop her own combination of dance choreography, filmmaking, theater, storytelling, and sound score, then racking up commissions and residencies for Gibney Dance, Louis Armstrong House Museum, Danspace Project, Pepatian and BAAD! (Brooklyn Academy of Arts and Dance), among many others. She was also awarded a Bessie Performance Award for her solo People Above the Moon in New York Live Arts’s Motherboard Suite. The New York Times named her piece Roster in the ”Best Dance of 2021”, and titled Farrish a break out star. She was also listed in Dance Magazine’s “Nine Screendance Artists You Should Know About.” On top of all this, Farrish has had commissions for the direction of films and live hybrid performances.

On the company’s website, Farrish sums up its raison d’être: “Decent Structures Arts combines live performance, filmmaking, and photography in order to find greater intimacy, honesty, and to witness the human experience. It is the bite, the lust, the implosion, the rebellion, the sadness, the effort and exhaustion, the swoon, and all the grit that makes us alive.”