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Comparative Literature

Silas R. Riener ’06


I majored in comparative literature at Princeton, with certificates in creative writing and dance. I am currently a dancer in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Outside of the Cunningham company I have begun to collaborate with other artists and create performance work of my own.

I think most of my choices in Princeton, particularly about what I would major in, what I would study, were rather pragmatic. I grew up with bilingual education and loved the study of languages, so I studied Spanish literature, Arabic love poems, psycholinguistics, the history of English, poetry workshops, and anything else I could get my hands on about words. “Comp lit” was the perfect place for me, not just because it offers a whole lot of study about what words are, but also because it is a small department. There was freedom in that intimacy, despite the strict and rigorous departmental requirements. Comp lit also offers a unique track for interdisciplinary study between literature and the creative arts, one that I was able to use in tying together my interests in literature, creative writing, and a burgeoning need to dance all the time. 

Submerged in activity

The dancing came out of nowhere to me, although looking back, I suppose I should have known. I came to Princeton an athlete, a devout runner and soccer player, but one who was determined to put academic study before my physical pursuits. It seems only natural now to have found a way to marry them completely. I began taking dance classes in the Program in Theater and Dance (now divided into separate programs) in the spring of my freshman year, after joining a student dance company and realizing I wanted more training. Professor Rebecca Lazier, then a new faculty member in the dance program, became a sort of mentor to me because, I realize now, I was desperate for one. She took me under her wing, she trained me, and she made it okay to want to be a dancer. 

Looking back at the classes that I took, it seems that my interests were all over the place. Each semester would find me completely submerged in a class I was taking on something that has no bearing at all on the life I lead now. Astrophysics? Lexical semantics? But it’s those experiences that I cherish now, because they have both helped me become the person and the artist that I am, and also because that idea of learning for the pure and simple satisfaction of desire for knowledge is what makes Princeton a great place to mature. I didn’t take those random courses, which I loved, to make me a better dancer (although I privately believe that they helped); I took them to make me a better person, a better citizen of the world. 

We are all bound for highly specialized fields, it’s the nature of things. What makes Princeton great is its training outside and around those fields. Princeton forced me not to become myopic, as I might have in a conservatory of dance. My time at Princeton was split between research and study, rehearsal and paper-writing, but this was not a distraction, but a delicately effected balance that kept me from falling over and into a world where there is only one thing to do. 

Putting my training to use

It wasn’t clear to me until the end of my junior year that I would become an artist. It might have been in the back of my mind all along; I have no idea. Maybe that is why I chose Princeton, not the obvious choice for aspiring artists, but certainly the best place to receive all-around training in thinking, learning, and research. I think for the most part I was just having such a good time at school that it didn’t occur to me that I would have to solve some specific problems after graduating: where to live, how to pay rent. 

I considered pretty seriously all of the fantastic one- or two-year service programs all over the world that Princeton offers to graduating seniors. But I felt that the clock was ticking on dance; it was now or never. It was then that I decided on New York, and a conservatory-style graduate program in dance, which led me to the Cunningham school. 

It’s now that the Cunningham company is closing that I am forced to be glad of my training at Princeton. Now that I’m grant-writing for myself, and trying to meet presenters of dance and get my work out there in the world, I realize my training at Princeton was for all of this; it was built in. It was for everything I couldn’t have thought of yet.