Silas Riener ’06 dances for a legend

Silas Riener ’06 and Marcie Munnerlyn perform “Beacon Event.”
Silas Riener ’06 and Marcie Munnerlyn perform “Beacon Event.”
Anna Finke, 2008

In a warm 11th-floor studio in New York City, Silas Riener ’06 is working up a sweat. Merce Cunningham, the 89-year-old legend of modern dance, is putting Riener — and other members of Cunningham’s company — through a grueling rehearsal. “How fast can you do a move? How slow? That’s what Merce is interested in: the extreme possibilities of the body,” says Riener.

That Riener is dancing at all with Cunningham is remarkable. After all, the 24-year-old New York City resident (and former captain of his high-school soccer and track teams) never had danced until college. Unlike many young aspirants who work day jobs and spend years paying their dues at smaller companies, Riener leaped right to the top. 

In September he performed in an audacious staging of Ocean, a seminal Cunningham work, in a specially built theater in the round in the pit of a massive granite quarry in St. Cloud, Minn. With the dancers encircled by the audience, the piece begins with quiet solos and builds slowly to a teeming metaphorical flood. Finally: a quiet and lyrical solo by Riener, which ends as the lights dim suddenly and he darts out “like I’m running the 100-yard dash. It’s exciting and — terrifying!” Come November, he will appear in four ensemble pieces in Berkeley, Calif. 

Riener took his first dance class at Princeton on a lark. After participating in high-school athletics, “I felt this void of physical activity in college.” So he joined the student dance company DiSiac in his freshman year, and by spring, “hungry for more,” he enrolled in a dance class. “He’d come to my office, ask a few questions, and slowly, the questions started building,” recalls Rebecca Lazier, his thesis adviser and mentor and now acting head of the dance program.  

Riener’s initial dabbling soon grew into a full-throated commitment. He landed lead roles in student performances of Vaslav Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un Fauneand Sergei Prokofiev’s Le Pas d’Acier. At Lazier’s urging, he spent the summer of 2005 studying dance technique in New York.  

After completing his senior thesis, culminating in a dance titled “Fugue State,” and earning a degree in comparative literature, Riener headed to New York University to pursue an M.F.A. in dance, but quickly found himself playing catch-up to classmates with years of conservatory training. He opted for supplemental classes at Cunningham’s studio, and it was there that he caught the eye of rehearsal director Robert Swinston. In September 2007, Swinston invited him to a class led by the dance icon himself. Riener was hired that day. “That never happens,” says Swinston. “It’s unusual for Merce to only need to see a person once.” 

“His passion has been ignited,” says Lazier. “The first time I took him to see Merce, we saw Ocean. Now he’s performing it.” 

Albert Lee ’99 is deputy editor at Us Weekly.