THE SOLO THAT SILAS RIENER ’06 performed in December 2011 in the farewell tour of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company lasted just two and a half minutes, but it was filled with astonishing physical feats. Audience members gasped as he moved from position to position — The New York Times counted “50 that went beyond any choreographic precedent” — and as Riener exited the stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, they burst into applause. Riener’s Princeton teacher and mentor, Rebecca Lazier, was there. She never had seen people clap in the middle of a Cunningham dance, she recalls, but “you couldn’t help yourself.”
That show was one of the last by the Cunningham company, whose renowned founder died in 2009. After the two-year “legacy” tour that took dancers to nearly 50 cities, the company would fold. Riener, however, would continue to win acclaim. Last fall, he won the prestigious New York Dance and Performance Award for that Cunningham solo performance in “Split Sides.” Cunningham provided a platform for Riener, and the dance world still knows him as one of the last of the Cunningham dancers. But soon, predicts arts critic Claudia La Rocco, he will be known for much more.
“You can see him thinking while he moves,” she says. “He is not just expressing the choreographer’s art, he is also expressing his own. ... There are a lot of dancers who are great technicians, but I wouldn’t say that they are great artists as well. Silas is both.”
RIENER’S RISE IN THE DANCE WORLD COULD not have been predicted. Unlike many students of dance at Princeton, Riener spent his teen years — in Washington, D.C. — playing soccer and running track, not studying ballet. He auditioned for the student-run dance company diSiac as a Princeton freshman, at the urging of a friend.
“I felt like I had some ability, but I certainly felt very bad at it,” he says. Seeking to improve, he enrolled in a class on modern dance with Ze’eva Cohen, who founded Princeton’s program, and began studying ballet.
As a sophomore, he took his first class with Lazier, a senior lecturer in Princeton’s program. She was struck by how quickly Riener’s body adapted to the demands of dance. “The first time he would do a combination across the floor, he would literally look like a colt that had just been born,” says Lazier. “And by the third time, he would really look like a dancer.”
“I was dabbling and then I was dabbling more and then it was more than dabbling, and it just kind of subsumed me,” Riener recalls. Within two years he was landing leading roles in major performances at Princeton: first, in Sergei Prokofiev’s Le Pas d’Acier; then in Vaslav Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un Faune. As a dance student, Riener was unusually curious: Students in a dance class generally mimic the teacher and follow directions, but Riener insisted on asking questions about why things were done the way they were.
The summer after his junior year, Riener — a comp-lit major who earned certificates in creative writing and dance — went to New York City to determine if a life in dance was possible. He took Arabic classes at Columbia in the morning, then headed downtown to take classes in dance. By the end of the summer, he had decided to become a professional dancer. His senior thesis culminated in a dance performance in the Chancellor Green rotunda, using his own poetry as source material for his choreography.
Riener was enrolled in an M.F.A. program at New York University and taking classes at the Cunningham studio when he received an email from Merce Cunningham’s assistant, Robert Swinston: an invitation to attend a class that Cunningham himself would observe. Cunningham must have liked what he saw, because by the end of the day, he had offered Riener a job. Only four years had passed since Riener’s first dance class. “It’s sort of like he’s been shot out of a cannon,” says his partner, Rashaun Mitchell, a former Cunningham dancer and choreographer who has collaborated with Riener since the company folded. “He came onto the scene in a very explosive way.”
A day or so after he joined the company, Riener found himself riding the elevator with Cunningham. “I remember him asking me how to say my name” — a “terrifying” moment, Riener says, “because it meant that he knew who I was and wanted to know who I was.” The famous dance master soon was putting the muscular, 5-foot-9 Riener into major roles, taking advantage of his power and flexibility. Cunningham’s work was very difficult to execute; much was either extremely slow or extremely fast and emphasized demanding technical movements. Dances were rehearsed in silence, says Riener, and dancers used a stopwatch to time their sequences. The first time they would dance to a piece with music was at the premiere.
One of the first pieces Riener danced — in Paris — required him to master a seven-minute series of positions. The dress rehearsal was challenging; when it was over, he felt sure that someone would knock on the door and tell him that his hiring had been a mistake. “At first I struggled with the sequence of the steps because all of Merce’s choreography was such a different and foreign language to me,” he recalls. “And for the tour, what was so appallingly difficult was the idea of performing them for the first time on stage, with lights, in front of 1,000 discerning Parisians.”
Mitchell remembers that Riener did have some catching up to do, but there was never a question about his talent. “He was a little bit raw at first, but he’s a very fast learner and he’s incredibly smart,” Mitchell says. “Everyone recognized that right away.” Cunningham reworked the “Split Sides” solo for Riener and created a solo and trio for him in “Nearly Ninety,” Cunningham’s last new work before his death.
Lazier has watched with pleasure as her novice student developed into a polished dancer who manages to surprise: He can look in turns graceful and controlled, and also wild and unpredictable, so that audience members don’t know what will happen next, she observes. Riener described his approach and his collaboration with Mitchell in a recent interview they did with Vogue magazine:
Riener: “I tend toward what you would call spatial violence in a dance, and it ends up taking me into different emotional states. But I’m interested in going to those places.”
Mitchell: “And I think I have a tendency to be meditative.”
Riener: “Well, you also have to temper my slamming myself all over the stage.”