Silas Riener

Photograph: Anna Finke

Why did you start dancing? 
I took my first dance class when I was 19 at Princeton. It was the second half of my freshman year and it was with Ze'eva Cohen. I had joined a student dance group in college because I was an athlete in high school, and I had been looking for something to do that was physical. I had decided not to be recruited for sports and I wanted something else to take up the time. And before that I had been in a couple of musicals in high school and I had done gymnastics when I was very young, very briefly. So there was physical information that was latent.

What sports did you participate in?
I played soccer for 18 years and I was a runner, but the dancing came much, much later and I really took to it. I really enjoyed the physical information—especially at that point. There was so much I could see that I wasn't getting because everyone was so far ahead, so I saw that there was a lot of room to grow, and I wanted to get it much faster than I was getting it. That made me work pretty hard. I really liked the combination of an artistic medium and physical challenges. 

Was it modern dance?
I started with Ze'eva and I started taking ballet classes a couple of times a week at the same time because the American Repertory Ballet has teachers that come and they offer just an extracurricular class at Princeton. Ze'eva was teaching mostly Limn-based modern dance. Capital M. Feeling it. Breathing. Weight.

Which is not terrible when you're starting out.
Yeah. I actually think it was a great place to start. It was also—they're not used to having that many men and I had all the wrong questions in a way because I was coming from a blank slate, and it took a while. I don't know. It's been an interesting entry point for me in the dance world and into dance-practitionering and training, both coming from an academic background and a athletic background.

It's an interesting perspective.
It was. And after that, I was mainly taking classes with Rebecca Lazier. She was the person who really trained me, in a sense of timing, but also how to look at things, how to take a dance class. So I had her for the three years. And she teaches a class—some of it from Limn, but a lot of it just her own technique class, which is incredible. It was great for me at that time.

You said that you asked all the wrong questions. What do you mean by that?

I feel like I didn't know how to go about anything and a lot of times in a dance class, the asking of questions is not always how you progress through the class. I think that a lot of times, people are taught to not ask questions, just to do it and do it again and learning by rote. I did not have that burned into me at a really young age. I wanted to know why. I wanted to know how. That sometimes caused a little bit of tension.

Were you a dance major at Princeton? Is there such a thing? 
There's no dance major. There's a small program in theater and dance. You can't have a minor at Princeton. You have your major and then there are other programs, which you can get a certificate in, and you can have more than one, but you have to satisfy the requirements as though it were a minor. So I took a lot of dance classes. 

What did you study academically?
I studied comparative literature and creative writing and linguistics. The comp-lit major requires intensive study of two languages other than English and you have to do a lot of your independent work with those two languages in comparison to each other. 

What were they?
Spanish and Arabic. For the Spanish, I went to bilingual school when I was younger, so I grew up speaking Spanish and English. We learned them at the same time at school. Arabic came in college. I did an intensive-immersion program in Cairo.

Where are you from exactly?
Washington, D.C. 

Did you watch dance growing up? 
[Shakes head] It's funny, we were talking about it yesterday because of the lecture demonstration at the Guggenheim for ABT's coming season. They're doing Duets. They were demonstrating it. I think I went to some education program for children at the Kennedy Center when I was in third grade or so and they were doing something like that with In the Upper Room. I remember red shoes and the bombers, but I don't think I saw a dance performance until later.

So essentially you were dancing before you saw dance?
Yeah. I definitely liked doing it. I was aware of dance as much as anyone who's not in the field. I watched music videos, I went to see shows, but the people in my student dance group had come from either dance team or they were cheerleaders or really well] trained dancers that didn't pursue it professionally and just went to college. So there was a big mash-up of people and they all brought different things and I guess I ingested some of that, but who knows how much? 

What year did you graduate?

2006.

Were you dancing with anyone at that point or just training? 
I applied to the MFA program at Tisch in my senior year at Princeton, so I knew I was going to that program. When I go home to D.C., I take class at Maryland Youth Ballet and there's a choreographer there named Lucy Bowen McCauley. She asked me to do a show over Christmas break from Tisch, and that I think was the first time I ever received payment for dancing. It was a show at the Kennedy Center.

When and how did you decide that you wanted to really pursue dance?
After my junior year at the college, I did the Arabic program at Columbia, which is, like, nine to one every day. I would do six hours of Arabic and then come downtown and take class at Peridance and that was when I took my first Cunningham classes. I took three or four classes and I auditioned for Stephen Petronio that summer. That was my trial move to New York, see if this is something that is viable, realistic and something I want to do. It was funny because I was doing this whole academic program, but that was when it started to shift. I wanted to be spending more time dancing. And that's when I decided that I was going to try to come to New York and be a dancer in some capacity. 

So that's when you applied for the Tisch program.
I knew that I wanted to move to New York, so I was looking at all of the programs in the New York area that were conservatory-based MFA programs because I hadn't taken that many dance classes at that point. Rebecca had advised me to do a sort of post-bacc in dance technique, so I applied to Purchase and to Tisch and I auditioned at Juilliard, which was funny.

How did that go?
It went really well. At that point, the Juilliard school was a really elevated idea in my mind. And I made it through the audition, and I had an interview at the end after the series of five rounds of eliminations. And my interview was with Larry [Rhodes], and he was sort of like, "What are you doing here?" I was 21 at that point, and they don't really take people that are that old anymore.

But they used to. 
They used to and they told me I was too old and I should go to Tisch, which is where he used to be the director. And I think about that moment because I think he's right in the sense of, would I have committed to four years at Juilliard? I'm not sure, but the training that they offer there, I probably would have benefited. But I got hired at Cunningham the next year, so he was right in the sense if he was creating a program for people who go through four years of school.

Tell me about going to Cunningham and taking class. Was it on someone's recommendation? 
From Rebecca. So Rebecca had me in class for two or three years at that point and she recommended it both for what it is and also for a system of body organization for people that have a lot of choices. It makes you really strong and especially for people who are really bendy or really loose, it organizes the body. She recommended it to me for those reasons. I took a couple classes, and I was really into it both on an intellectual level and also on the physical challenges of not being able to do it, which without sounding arrogant, didn't happen to me much at that stage. So I really took to it and I was taking classes there. I would go on weekends sometimes when I was at Tisch that first year, take Sunday class with Hristoula [Harakas].

She's the best.
She's the best. She's an incredible teacher, and she's teaching at Tisch now actually. Just as a source of information, but also just watching her especially in Cunningham. She is a beautiful Cunningham dancer. So I would take class there on the weekends and after school ended that first year, I did a summer program with Kazuko Hirabayashi in Spain and that's when I started dancing with Take [Takehiro Ueyama] and taking Kazuko's classes and ballet everyday. And when I came back to go to my second year at Tisch, I was taking classes at Cunningham to get back into shape at the end of the summer and that's when Robert [Swinston] invited me to take class with Merce. I had a couple of those classes, and I knew that there was turnover in the company at that point—Cdric had just left so Daniel [Madoff] was replacing him and they were looking for someone in the understudy group and what I didn't know at that time was that Jonah [Bokaer] was also leaving. I got an e-mail from Robert saying, "Come to class tomorrow, stand in front of Merce." It was a Thursday. At that point, Tisch had started so I was taking an 11:30am class at Cunningham and running across town to make it to Second Avenue Dance Company class. I got a phone call that afternoon asking me if I would like to join the company.

 

Wow
It was a surprise to me as well. Because Jonah was leaving very suddenly and Merce hired me.

What it was like to take class in front of him? Were you up close?
Yes. There might have been one or two people in front of me. He used to sit in the corner with a little barre and a little stool. So there were a few people that could be on his level and a few people in front of him. And it was kind of terrifying. He taught twice a week at that point—Monday and Thursday. And I remember he corrected a few things that I was doing. I felt like he was watching even if he was...I mean I think that if I had known it was my audition for the Cunningham company, it would have freaked me out a whole lot more. But I was just taking class. I was doing what I do.

In that case, it's probably good that the technique is so hard.  

You can't really think about that much else. And even if you are, it doesn't really matter. Just do the steps. If you can. 

Don't forget to breathe.
Not at Cunningham. You don't have to breathe. Just do it. 

So he hired you on the spot. What was that like when you got to the company? Did you know people?
I didn't really know anyone's name. I knew a couple of people. I think I knew who Daniel Squire was because I had taken his class a couple times. I knew Jonah. I mean I had to look at the website to learn people's names. I was hired in mid-September and then [the company] went on tour for three or four weeks. They came back and there was going to be two weeks of rehearsal before I was to perform in Paris for my first show. At that point when I had gotten the job, I dropped out of school. Merce didn't go to Australia, so he was there. So we worked together because I had to start learning all the rep. I had two weeks with Jonah to learn all of his parts. So we started working on everything and just in the studio with videos. And one of the understudies, Melissa [Toogood], had been on tour with the company so she tried to teach me a couple of things, but yeah, it was just like me in the room with Merce and trying to learn off the video. I would learn something, I would show it, I would get messed up and I had to keep doing it. 

That's amazing to have that time with him.
Yeah, I guess. He was working with the RUGs. They had just premiered XOVER so he was already working on something else, what would become Nearly Ninety. It wasn't that much time.

Do you regret never having been a RUG in a way?
Well it's been really interesting because everyone else in the company had at least a couple of years with Merce as an understudy and I think a couple of things about that. It was really hard for me as an entry point into the technique because I had taken probably like ten or maybe 15 Cunningham classes at that point, so I didn't really know what I was doing and I didn't really know a lot of things. And that gestation period where you're taking class every day, you're with Merce—I didn't have that experience and I didn't have the experience with him making work on me with a few exceptions. Because he made a lot of work on the understudies at the end, which would then get transferred to the company, I didn't have that time with him. I don't regret that because at least I had some time with him. I feel fortunate for what I have. But I'm also not entirely sure if I would have enjoyed it—the break-you-down, boot-camp feeling. I'm not sure if I would have stayed a year or two the way that some people did. Or three. 

Did he ever make anything on you?
He made the solo that I do on Nearly Ninety. He changed a lot of things in the rep that stayed in the company. We still do Split Sides. Jonah had a long solo in Split Sides that I do now that he changed a lot for me and the dancer that I am. 

How is it different?
Jonah and I are very different dancers energetically and I think Jonah seemed to have a really vested interest in formalism in the Cunningham work, and I think in my nature, I'm a little bit more of a mess. And I'm more interested in that wilder dimension.

The Viola Farber as opposed to the Carolyn Brown.
[Laughs] Merce liked creatures and he liked birds. And some people are birds and some people are swamp witches. But yeah, he made the Nearly Ninety solo on me.

 

Can you tell me about the solo?
Yeah. Merce never talked about what was happening. He would just call out a few people's names and you would go in and you would learn something or he would make something. And it was all very class system in a way. So he had called a couple people in to make things on them, and he called me in. No one else was there. He also made the trio in Nearly Ninety—the really slow one that goes across the stage—on me and Holley Farmer and Koji [Mizuta]. And for that solo, he came in. He made some steps. I mean it was crazy because he just makes it and then you do it, and I think it was one day that he made it and it took an hour and a half maybe. No one else was in the room and so whatever I retained was what it became. And so you have to work really hard to make sure you remember exactly what he said for everything because he only says it once. He's not doing it. He's not saying, "Oh, didn't I say this?" He's just throwing it at you. And I remember it was fast. After he would show the steps, he would sometimes give a rhythm for certain parts of it, but I also remember him saying—you know, he always wanted me to vary the tempo at different times—and I remember the instructions for different movements. I think it's a minute and a half long. 

And you said that he showed you the movements, but you mean he would speak them? 
Yeah: "Step back on your right foot; put your left foot behind you; twist to the right." He made this little step at the beginning that went backward and then went forward and then he had me do it four times in a row. And then he said, "Can you do it, but make a circle around yourself?" And the whole thing's in pli. And at that point for Nearly Ninety, everything was barely off that floor—like the leg just barely off the floor. 

What did you choose to perform at the Armory?
We were given a choice. I guess you heard about that. I perform the Split Sides solo a lot in Events, and I didn't want to ask for that because I've done it a lot and it's always a little bit more strange in an Event than it is in the context of the piece. So I asked for something new and Robert and I talked about that together. I learned a couple of different things and what we settled on is a solo in Enter that was originally Foofwa [d'Imobilit's]. I like it. It's challenging.

I can see you in that being in the vein of Foofwa.
I like to watch him a lot. 

Is that who you identify with the most?
There's a risk-taking in his dancing that I definitely identify with. He's a lot more organized that I am, and he was organized from a very young age. I don't think I'll ever quite be like that. But he's definitely one of the people that I really admire. 

And you probably only saw him in Cunningham on video, right?
Yeah. I mean I know him in the world now and I've seen his work, but mostly I know his white unitard with the T-shirt tucked in from the videos.  It's strange, I feel like I know a lot of people that way and then I meet them and I'm like, "Oh you're that one." I don't do his parts in anything. There are different lineages of people, and a lot of times the person you replace is the part you end up doing. And I'm in a different lineage.

What has this tour been like for you? Knowing that you're performing these pieces for the last time and there's a definite end date? Normally dancers don't get that.
Well, when they retire they get it. In some ways it's been great because a lot of the time it's really difficult to know when it's time to stop, and I've seen a lot of different iterations of that equation and we're being given the opportunity to exit gracefully whether we like it or not. And for me, it will be after four years and that feels like maybe not enough to get really through the whole trajectory of experience, but it was enough time to experience the work. And without Merce, without a creative input of new work, the dynamic changes really dramatically and I feel like it was enough time of that. I don't know if it was enough time with Merce. I would have loved to have made another piece because I think he was interested in me at that point and I was interested in pushing forward, and we didn't get to. At the same time, I got something and I feel happy about that. But the last year and a half has been a really wild time. I've been all over the world; I've been not at all in my apartment. I've gotten the opportunity to perform a lot of work that was both made with Merce or important revivals that were brought back after he passed away. It's definitely made me the dancer I am whether I like it or not. The broken shell of a dancer that I am. Physical and otherwise.

What do you mean? Not being able to be at home?
Yeah, well I don't really mind that at this point. This is a great time to be this kind of traveler for me. I don't know. It makes you crazy; the whole thing makes you crazy.

You have domestic tours too.
Yes. South Bend, Indiana. Iowa. The flu in Iowa with no hot water in the hotel will make you crazy. We were performing in a hotel ballroom at the student center in Iowa with no hot water and I thought I was going to die.

Could I ask you to talk about the pieces that have been meaningful for you?
Pieces or places?

 

Pieces. Unless you want to talk about places. 
The places that have been significant have been the places that we've returned to. I mean it's been great to go everywhere and go to Hong Kong and go to London, but places that I went with Merce. My first tour was in Paris; we're finishing in Paris. It has agreeable symmetry. The pieces that have felt significant—we don't do a lot of the rep that was in the company when I joined. We've retired a number of pieces since then, and I think that while the revivals we've done since Merce passed away—they don't have his input, sometimes it's a little bit harder for me to get into them in the same way. But the pieces that we still do that I still feel the creative thread from the maker, like Split Sides and BIPEDNearly NinetyXOVER. Everyone has a different experience because we're not an ensemble company all dancing together. So doing BIPED for the women is an incredible journey and I like it, but it's not the same. Roaratorio premiered the year I was born and so that's sort of cute. I like my part. I like doing it. I like doing RainForest. I think that Merce would have liked to see this company do it. That piece has been revived many times. It's strange, but I love it.

Who do you dance for now that Merce is not around?
Good question. Well it was easy when Merce was alive and he was watching to feel compelled and feel propelled by that and I think for a certain time that lingered. At this point, I think that the company hasn't changed at all in the last two years, so we dance for each other. I guess the obvious answer is that I do it for myself. There was always an aspect of that—coming up against physical limitations and possibility and seeing if you can do it. I don't know, that's a strange question for me.

I think that in my conversations with people, it's becoming clear that you are dancing for each other in a way as well. 
It's just us. There's no one else. There's no one else around. Especially when we're onstage, which at this point is most of the time. This is what we have left. It's great we have so many performances left. That's when it makes the most sense.

When you're onstage? 
That's the only time it makes sense to me anymore. 

Earlier, we were talking and you spoke about looking down the tunnel of something that never seemed it was going to end. Were you referring to the tedium of the tour? The frustration?
We had been made aware of the Legacy Plan beforehand. We knew the proposed structure of the time. And when Merce died and that plan went into action, there was a moment where the possibility of leaving was real. To not do this very long, very difficult two-year commitment to work that was not new. And for me, once I really got into it the thing that interested me most about the work and the studio and Merce was the prospect of new work. And I had a real question about wanting to be part of a revival company, and I wasn't sure. And what I ended up committing to and deciding was that it was important to do this and that I was going to commit to it, and I'm really glad I did that. I'm glad that I stayed and the tunnel, I think, has been the difficulty of staying consistently committed to the same idea excluding everything else. I haven't really had time to do anything else and I knew that that was going to be the case going in and I've made my peace with that, but it's a dimension of the whole.

It's something I've never thought of.
That this is two years of my young life not doing anything else. That was a hard choice to make.

What made you decide to do it?
It was the right choice. I think it had been maybe a little bit less than two years that I had been in the company and I think it would have been a mistake to cut and run at that point. I was still learning a lot about the work. I was still growing in the technique and there was still a lot that I wanted to do in the work. I don't know. It was my life. And I almost feel like saying I didn't have the right to leave at that point. Everyone was staying. It felt really important that I stayed and it has been.

What are your plans? Do you have plans?
I have a few plans. I'm going to keep dancing. I intend to make work. I intend to stay in New York, at least initially. Rashaun [Mitchell] and I are continuing to make work together in different capacities. I have a show in November that is the beginning of something that will hopefully, possibly, continue next year at the Storefront for Art and Architecture. It's with the Harrison Atelier. They did Anchises with Jonah. I'm collaborating with them. It's three other dancers from Cunningham. One of the things that has been really amazing about this is the prospect of the severance package they've offered us being a platform on which we can build a real transition. And I'm treating at least some of that as kind of a research grant to myself. And I'm going to travel. I'm going to spend about a month in Frankfurt next year taking class with [William Forsythe]. I'm hoping to go to Tel Aviv to take class with Batsheva. I'm hoping to do all of the things I want to because I have the means in a way that I never have before or probably never...

And go to the source, what a gift to yourself. So you have interest in potentially joining one of those companies?
I don't know. That's not my primary interest in either of those trips. I think that those are two of the main places that I think real physical research is being done and I want to be present. 

You took Gaga classes in Tel Aviv, right?
I took Gaga with the company, with Ohad. It was fun. And I took class with Forsythe a couple of weeks ago when we were in Berlin. I went up to Frankfurt. I don't pretend to expect job prospects, but I think that those are paths that I would like to walk. And in terms of back in New York, I'm dancing for Rebecca. She has a show next June in Canada. I'm doing that with her. I don't know what else will come along. I'm available. I really wanted to do the Einstein on the Beach tour, which starts January 3rd, and it is completely impossible so I wasn't able to go to an audition for that. But there are going to be things like that. But I don't know if I will dance for another company. I think I may. I'm not a spring chicken anymore, but I'm 27. I'm one of the youngest actually. I'm sort of going to see what happens.

Do you agree with the idea to disband the company?
I do. 

Why?
I think for a lot of the reasons I've stated already about the energetic component of a creative work, going into a group that was designed around the input of a creative master. And I have seen how it has changed in subtle ways and for that reason alone I think that this iteration of the model has to close in order to make way for something else. I don't think it should be the end of Merce's work, but I think that this company has existed for as long as it can.

Will you miss technique class?
I will likely still take class. I have ideological problems with class.

Like what?
I think that Merce designed class in order to support the work that he was making and that it makes the most sense when you're doing the work and there are things about it, the physical research that Merce was doing that don't make a lot of sense for a technique class for training. For a technique, I do think that Cunningham class offers an organization and a strength that is invaluable in the training of a dancer, but we do it every day and it creates problems as well.

Physical problems?
Physical problems.

Right. Do you think it would be better to take ballet?
I think that it's better to do a lot of things. I take ballet now. It depends on what you're doing. It depends on what kind of work you're performing. Merce's work changed a lot through the ages, which we can now talk about. And it always supported the work that he was making. At the end, the work that he was making was extreme. I just have some questions about if you're not making that work or not doing that work, what other purpose is there? I mean they always said that you had to take a class before you could take a Balanchine class, especially at the end. It wasn't the thing that got you warm to dance. It was just what he was into. And I think it was the same with Merce. For ballet right now, I take Janet Panetta when she's in town. I sometimes take Christine Wright. I sometimes take Zvi Gotheiner. There's a woman called Giada Ferrone who teaches a really great class, but it's on Saturdays at 2pm, and I can't really support that. [Laughs]

What was it like to say goodbye to Merce? I know you probably did it twice.

The long version is that we were performing at Wolf Trap. I think it was early July and so Merce had not been coming on tour a little bit at that point. But a couple times we set up a live stream of the show. Every time he wasn't on tour, we would call him before the show and everyone would get a little second on the phone. And at Wolf Trap we Skyped with Merce before the show. He was in bed and in his pajamas and he wanted each of us to put our face in the camera, one by one. And then he said a few things to all of us. And I remember Laura Kuhn was there at his apartment and his nurse was there. And there was something about it that it just was like he was saying goodbye. It was clear to me at that point that he was going to die. That's when I felt it. After I stopped crying, we did the show: We did Split Sides and Sounddance. It was my first time doing Sounddance because Koji had left and I learned that part. And then we came back [to New York] and Trevor said Merce is dying, we have to all go and say goodbye. So we went in groups of two or four. I went with Anna Finke who's the costume designer and wardrobe supervisor for the company and a dear, dear friend of mine. We walked over—Merce used to live above the Container Store on Sixth Avenue at 18th Street—and Trevor was there. Merce was in his bed. He was awake. And we talked. 

What about? 
We talked about the carpenter who had come to fix the windows in his apartment, this woodworker. We talked about some stones that were there. And that's kind of it.

Some stones? 
Like there were rocks or plants in his apartment. We talked about everything except the situation at hand, which is how Merce was to me. I think a lot of people wanted to share something really metaphysical or closing at that moment, and I don't know. I couldn't do that. We talked. It was nice. And then we left. And then he didn't die, and we were leaving to go to Jacob's Pillow and we all drove in the van and we all stopped by. 

On the way there?
On the way out. We did eight shows at Jacob's Pillow that week, like kind of hovering in that place and that's when they did the live stream to Merce of the show. And then we came home and that night Merce died. And that morning I got the phone call.

Had you spoken as a group?
No. Everyone had a different relationship to Merce. Everyone had, to whatever extent, a personal relationship with Merce, and I think that we didn't really deal with it as a group. I don't know if we have ever dealt with it as a group except in the work that we do. That's just how it is. I remember coming back after that—we had a long break after that, it might have been three weeks or something. We were coming back to work, and I was doing the Split Sides solo and in the middle of the piece I just broke down. I don't know. There were those things—it was impacting people in really different ways and at really different rates. I think I said goodbye to him that day at Wolf Trap and that was when it was the realest. But it's an interesting question about the group dynamic and the group mentality of what it means to go on after or in the wake of.

When you say that you broke down—

I mean I started crying, left the room. It was the first time I had done that solo, which was what I think got Merce interested in me. He changed it a lot for me and I have an emotional attachment to that time with him that doing that movement again for the first time, it was a heavy moment.

You were in the studio?
Yeah. We were in the middle of the dance. [Laughs] I just left.

You said everyone had a different relationship with him. What was yours like?
So the day after I got hired was when I sort of met Merce. We were in the elevator together, and he asked me how to say my name and that was the beginning. Because I had such a kind of rocket-ride entry into the company—the new person is always the one that gets the most attention. And you practice your parts the most, you have the most things to check after the piece is over. So I felt like I was always the one in the spotlight for a little while. I don't know how many times Merce and I actually sat down and talked. Maybe at a party a couple of times? Sometimes in the studio, he would just be sitting in his chair and I would go over and talk about birds or clouds or whatever. The weather. So, I don't know. It's hard to say. I think he liked me as a dancer. He liked working with me, and I liked the challenges he was offering a lot. It feels like a long time ago already, which is sobering.

Do you think you'll ever find that challenge elsewhere?
I hope so.

That's kind of what you're searching for?

Mmm hmm. I don't know. I mean when I first started thinking about what I was going to do afterward, I was looking for that. I don't know if it's available. I don't know anyone who's making work that way, but I will keep looking. I mean there are certainly things that I learned from him about that that I hope to employ for myself.

About what?
About physical challenge and rigor. And the possibilities for movement.

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