'If the Dancer Dances': Film Review

Courtesy of Monument Releasing
Captures the passion and the sweat of performance.
4/26/2019

Maia Wechsler's documentary chronicles the efforts of Stephen Petronio's dance company to recreate Merce Cunningham's classic 1968 piece 'RainForest.'

Don't be surprised if your muscles start aching in sympathy while watching Maia Wechsler's backstage dance documentary. Chronicling the efforts of choreographer Stephen Petronio and his dancers to recreate RainForest, Merce Cunningham's classic 1968 modern dance piece, If the Dancer Dances provides a vivid illustration of the intense physical rigor involved in making what transpires onstage look easy. Although repetitive at times and, like so many show business documentaries, displaying a tendency toward self-congratulation, the film will prove fascinating for dance buffs.

Petronio has led his own well-regarded company for 30 years, but had never presented any pieces other than those he choreographed himself. He made an exception on the occasion of the centennial of Cunningham's birth. The modern dance legend, who continued to perform in his own works until very late in his career before his 2009 death at age 90, is a constant presence throughout the documentary, in the form of both archival clips and reminiscences by three of his former company members. Petronio comments that he was inspired to become a choreographer after taking a class taught by Cunningham. "I wouldn't be here as a creator unless Merce opened that door for me," he says.  

The aged Cunningham company veterans were recruited by Petronio to help reconstruct RainForest, inspired by a rainforest in Washington state near where Cunningham grew up. The piece, performed to electronic music composed by David Tudor, features costumes by Jasper Johns and scenery by Andy Warhol in the form of metallic balloons.

Petronio explains that choreography, unlike other art forms, can often by ephemeral. Most choreographers don't use dance notation and very few dancers understand it. And even when a dance is recorded on film, it's not a three-dimensional representation. So he enlists the services of three Cunningham dancers who performed in the original piece, hoping to take advantage of their muscle memory. The precise movements are crucial, since, as one of them comments, Cunningham never talked about his dances or explained their meanings.

"I would say Cunningham really evokes fear," says a member of Petronio's ensemble about the abstract choreography for the piece, much of it suggesting creatures who live in the rainforest, which is extremely notoriously difficult to perform. We see footage of lengthy rehearsals in which Petronio's dancers strain to master it. The initial reaction to their efforts by one of the Cunningham veterans isn't encouraging. "It had no life," complains Gus Solomons Jr. after watching a run-through.

Of course, if Petronio and his company had failed in their efforts it would have resulted in a very downbeat documentary, which this one decidedly isn't. The film includes footage of their triumphant performance of the piece at New York City's dance mecca, the Joyce Theater, as part of a Cunningham tribute. They subsequently performed it at other venues around the country, including Princeton, New Jersey's McCarter Theater.

As fine as their recreation is, however, it doesn't compare to the mesmerizing footage of Cunningham himself seen throughout the doc. The lithe dancer/choreographer had an amazing physical presence both onstage and off, which remains evident even in a segment shot very late in his life in which he's seen rehearsing his dancers from a wheelchair. If the Dancer Dances represents a moving cinematic tribute to his important legacy.

Production company: Unity Avenue Foundation
Distributor: Monument Releasing
Director: Maia Wechsler
Producers: Lise Friedman, Maia Wechsler
Executive producers: Tracy Gardner, Donna Roggenthien, Claire Silberman
Directors of photography: Eric Phililips-Horst, Alex Rappoport, Victoria Sendra, Scott Sinkler, Alex Gallitano, Sean Hanley, John Meese, Tom Piozet, Rahul Sharma, Adam Uhl
Editor: Mary Manhardt
Composer: Paul Brill

83 minutes