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A Dancer’s Life After Merce

By Silas Riener

Editor’s Note: Before he passed away, choreographer Merce Cunningham began planning for the future of his company without him.  He decided that, upon his death, or at a suitable time thereafter, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) would embark on one final 2-year Legacy Tour and then dissolve.  You can read more about his Legacy Plan here.   Silas Riener, a dancer with MCDC, shares some reflections from his time with Merce and the company, and tells us a little bit about what life looks like for him after this final tour comes to a close.

Ann Arbor marks the beginning of the 3rd week of this part of the tour, full of winter weather (Iowa, rural Pennsylvania, minus seven degrees at times…) and lots of good times.  We have been performing lots of different rep, notably BIPED, which has only been seen once before on the Legacy Tour, and a few Soundance’s, which is always really nice for the company.  Ann Arbor will see Split Sides and Squaregame, two of our more high energy pieces, which we have been looking forward to getting back into.

It has been interesting touring Merce’s work since he died.  I feel like for many of us his presence was vital to our experience, and his input was crucial to our understanding of the material.  Sometimes even his lack of input would be just as important; I learned so much from what Merce would say, or what he wouldn’t say.  He was guiding our experiences, and in his absence, we have been forced to find governing principles for ourselves.  Sometimes it seems easier than others; the vacuum persists.

Much thought and discussion has gone into planning the future once the company closes.  For many of us dancers in the company, working for Merce was all we were ever interested in doing.  It was a goal to be reached, and it certainly wasn’t easy.  It’s strange to imagine other possible paths when the thing you have been trying for so long to get, you already have.  It has made many of us reconsider our values and whether we are interested in continuing to dance or maybe more interested in doing something else.

For myself, I know that I still have a really strong interest in continuing to dance.  I have been with MCDC for three and a half years now, and it has been a wonderful experience, but I have begun to feel the lack of my own creative voice.  It has been hard since Merce died, that all the new work the company has taken in is revival.  I can’t fully impart the sort of ecstatic paradigm shift that came when Merce was making a new piece, and I only really got to experience it once (Nearly Ninety).  It was as if the steps were coming out of the air, and even if it was a familiar one, as it often was, say a triplet, it still felt special because you knew that no one had yet done a triplet THIS way.  The revivals are wonderful, but it’s a different experience learning from video, or knowing that you are re-interpreting steps made for someone else.

It’s for this reason that I have begun to think about making work myself.  Along with another dancer in the company, Rashaun Mitchell, I have begun creating dance projects, and we have put some showings together.  It’s difficult to find rehearsal time inside the busy Cunningham touring schedule, but it’s been liberating at the same time.  We are able to set our own schedule, and we are able to think of ourselves as makers with a real will to create something that maybe hasn’t been seen before.

Our first project together, a collaboration with poet Anne Carson ( a sometime Ann Arbor resident) was first shown last summer, both at Mount Tremper Arts Festival in New York, and at Boston’s ICA Co-LAB.  Here in Ann Arbor, we’re taking some time to revamp a few sections of the dance, which takes Carson’s new book Nox as its subject.  We’ll be showing a bit of it Thursday, February 24 at 3:10pm in Studio A of the U-M Dance Building if anyone is interested.  An excerpt of the Boston performance can be seen below.

Hope you have enjoyed this bit of insight into the company life, and I hope you come to the show!  Friday and Saturday, February 18-19 at the Power Center.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Silas Riener grew up in Washington DC. He graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Comparative Literature. There he began studying dance with Ze'eva Cohen and Rebecca Lazier, and performed works by James Waring, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Leonide Massine, as restaged by Millicent Hodson. He has also worked with Takehiro Ueyama, Christopher Williams, Jonah Bokaer, and Rebecca Lazier. He joined MCDC in November 2007. While performing with MCDC, Riener completed his MFA in Dance at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.

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