How Silas Riener ’06 leapt from Princeton to the world’s top stages

Silas Riener ’06 teaches a dance class at Princeton in February.
Silas Riener ’06 teaches a dance class at Princeton in February.
PHOTO: RICARDO BARROS

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.”

Riener performs in “Veal,” which premiered in New York City in February.
Riener performs in “Veal,” which premiered in New York City in February.
PHOTO: ANDREA MOHIN/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

AFTER DANCING WITH THE CUNNINGHAM ­company for four years, Riener now is doing what most dancers do at the beginning of their careers: lining up and juggling projects, applying for grants, performing, teaching, and choreographing. He is coming of age as a ­dancer-choreographer as the dance world is changing — as Washington Post writer Sarah Kaufman noted in 2010, “there’s been a downsizing, a redefining, a splintering into countless small niches.” After Cunningham died in 2009, Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and an arts-management expert, wondered in The Huffington Post about whether a new generation of great dance companies could succeed legends like Cunningham, Martha Graham, and Paul Taylor. “Virtually every great modern dance company was founded more than 40 years ago,” he wrote. 

“Silas is interested in making and performing work that pushes at the boundaries of the art form,” says Susan Marshall, director of Princeton’s dance program. “And that kind of dance has always been the most fragile part of the dance [world]. ... He’s not creating mainstream, feel-good dances.” 

The pool of money for dance has shrunk over the last few decades, Marshall notes; there are fewer opportunities and less funding for touring. Still, she insists that dancers have options to be innovative. Riener’s audience, she says, wants to see experimental, challenging work. “I have no doubt that ... his work will have impact,” she says. 

Few jobs are more physically demanding. “In my first couple years in the company, I would wake up in a lot of pain,” Riener says. He often begins the day with Pilates or another form of cross-training. He will rehearse for hours on a new piece. He might head off to teach a dance class in New York City and later go rock-climbing, swim, or take a yoga class. Some­times he takes a dance class himself, or participates in a workshop on butoh, a demanding form of avant-garde, somewhat primal, Japanese modern dance. There are late nights, too: When he is not performing, he attends the dance concerts of others. He usually gets back to his apartment between midnight and 2 a.m. 

Since the Cunningham tour ended, Riener’s plate has been full. In late November, he performed a new work by the choreographer Tere O’Connor in New York. He has danced with Lazier’s Terrain company in Turkey and Nova Scotia. He has worked with Mitchell on several projects, including “Nox,” a collaboration with the poet Anne Carson, and the work-in-progress “Interface,” which they performed in July at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. That piece explores the nature of emotions, and was scheduled to premiere this month in New York City. 

Working with the Harrison Atelier, a design collective founded by Seth ’83 and Ariane Lourie Harrison ’93, Riener recently choreographed “Veal,” a gallery installation and performance that explores industrial farming, including animal cruelty and man’s competition with nature to control the environment. The installation and dance, which premiered in New York last month, were inspired largely by political scientist Timothy Pachirat’s book Every Twelve Seconds, which chronicles his five months undercover in a slaughterhouse. Though the idea for the project originated with the Harrisons, it resonated with Riener, a vegetarian. He won’t say exactly what he hopes audience members will take from it: “We’re letting the work speak [for itself] and be ambiguous and be complicated and be so many things all at once.” 

The “Veal” project illustrates the attention Riener pays to research while perfecting his choreography: He studied animal movement, the human-animal relationship, and how animals are processed for human consumption. Why, he asks, have we “placed these institutions of slaughter so far out of our visual field?” For a piece he is developing with Mitchell about taste — “what we like and why we like it” — he studied some of the science behind how aesthetic choices are made. He can’t explain exactly how his research plays out in his art. “It’s very much simmering. It’s boiling over. ... I have certain ideas of how it will come out in the studio, and those aren’t always the ways that it does,” he says. 

People sometimes tell Riener that they don’t “get dance.” He understands that dance — without the oral language of plays, or the familiarity of music — can be difficult for audiences. He doesn’t mind. Developing a work, he thinks about ways to help an audience relate to his message — but he acknowledges that others may not perceive exactly what he hopes to impart. “No two people are going to have the same experience because they’re coming to a performance with different eyes, different backgrounds, and different associations,” he says. “So I think it’s foolish to try and deliver one singular experience.”

Last fall, Riener returned to Prince­ton — the place where he discovered dance — as a guest choreographer, teaching technique for a Cunningham work that he staged with 12 students at the Spring Dance Festival in February. This spring, he is teaching a class on advanced dance technique. He is impressed with the students, who “bring all of their mental faculties and impressive analytical abilities to the studio,” he says. He realizes that most will not pursue dance as a career, and that’s fine. They will, he hopes, get dance: “I’m more interested in them having an experience of dance that they can take into their wider lives and feel good about.” 

Katherine Federici Greenwood is an associate editor at PAW.