Silas Riener’s BLUE NAME @ The Chocolate Factory

Photo by Madeline Best

Photo by Madeline Best

I have never met Silas Riener, but for the three weeks he was a Gibney Dance in Process Resident Artist last Spring, I copy and pasted a tiny version of his headshot into our weekly staff briefing, along with photos of new staff members, workshop leaders, and upcoming events, so that the staff could say hi if they saw him in the hall, and just generally be friendly.

Fast forward a few months: I luckily snagged a ticket to what ended up being a completely sold out, two week run at the dance and performance art mainstay, the Chocolate Factory in Long Island City.  I was happy I could finally exchange an IRL face for the tiny electronic one.

I had heard great things about Riener; that he was kind, charming, hugely smart, and not too hard on the eyes either, wink wink.

Then I missed the G train, showed up 10 minutes late, got the absolute last seat available, had a horrible cold, and spent much of the show trying to suppress coughs. But even through all the horrible social anxiety that induced, I could still immediately tell that the rumors were true.

When I arrived, Riener was walking on and off stage in a kind of warm-up outfit, making eye contact and smiling at the small audience, gathered on risers at one of the narrow ends of the white room. And then, when he was ready, and the last person in the room (me) was settled, he calmly said, ‘Alright let’s get this thing started,’ and the piece began. Or “began,” depending on your personal thoughts on beginnings.

As the lights dim (shout out Davison Scandrett, Lighting Designer), Riener takes a ball of string lights from where they were hanging on the wall and holds it right at the center of his body: illuminating parts of himself, keeping others in the dark.

The piece takes off from this image, with Riener bringing light to a lot of different forms, images, traditions, without ever fully exposing or dwelling too long on any one thing.

One of the most notable touchstones of the work was Riener’s turning toward and then away from what I’ll call, for lack of terminology that doesn’t feel Eurocentric, “traditional” movement: movement culled from largely balletic muscle memory, or maybe memories of the years he spent in the Merce Cunningham Company. He wasn’t really doing it as much as remembering what it felt like to do it. In front of us. While looking at us look at him.

He spent a considerable amount of time and effort sifting through different traveling steps (to quote every ballet teacher ever) that allowed (or necessitated) a frontal facing, open, and performative body. But then it ended and he just walked away from it.  No comment or discernible opinion about it, just referencing, evoking, putting forth.

Other things Riener evoked without comment: a record player on which he would place multiple records at once before simply turning them off; a long blue scarf he pulled from across the floor to wrap around his head in a kind of turban or head-wound-bandage and later slipped off, though not before moving through the space and making visible his negotiation with the added weight of the fabric; I’ll stop there so as not to give away all the good stuff.

And then, when the piece was over, just as he did at the beginning, he simply turned around and said, without any affect (other than pure charm), “That’s the end.”

Clap clap clap. Come back, bow again! Clap clap clap.

There was a moment near the beginning where I thought maybe the piece was getting political.

Riener, with buds in his ears playing something we are not privy to, starts saying (or trying to say) something we can’t make out. It could be words overlapped with each other, sentences played backwards (shout out Missy Elliot) or a language Riener hasn’t quite mastered or is hearing for the first time. Whatever the case, the content was illegible.

He then kneels next to the record player and carefully plays something that invoked for me a kind of Eastern European, polka-ish tradition. After the song plays out, Riener places another record on top of the still spinning polka piece. This new record is a duet between an American-sounding man and woman in a style that my mom would call “old timey.” But the track doesn’t play successfully for very long before it starts to skip and scratch and loop back on itself.  Move over James Blake, the jig is up! Jesse Stiles, Sound Designer, has bested you.

So, at this moment I was thinking, “okay okay, legibility of language… America subsuming other cultures… leads to cracks, false starts, more confusion? #Metaphors?”

But then, no, Riener just kept on going with the piece, no turning back.

Blue Name does not tell us what to think about anything it touched on. It is a piece built on and/both rather than either/or. Multiplicity abounds, minds are free to wander, the piece chugs steadily on, smoothly traversing the hour + run time and three costume changes (designed by four people, Riener, Georg Venson, Reid Bartelme, and Julia Donaldson).

That’s not to say that meaning isn’t culled through the references and images he brings to light; it totally is. But it’s a piece that seems to be free of neuroses. And I don’t know about you, but the girl who comes in late with a cough, who kind of knows you but really doesn’t at all, could really use a little more of that in her life.

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