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FILM REVIEW: “If the Dancer Dances,” an Intimate Look at the Recreation of Cunningham’s “RainForest” from Studio to Stage

by Bonnie Rosenstock
May 18, 2019
“If the Dancer Dances”
Directed by Maia Wechsler
Produced by Maia Wechsler and Lise Friedman
Feature Documentary/ 2018/ 83 Minutes/ USA

“The beauty . . . and amazing thing about dance is that it gets passed from one body and one soul to another. There’s something so precious and beautiful about that. . . It goes into the body, goes into the air and then it disappears,” observed Stephen Petronio at the start of “If the Dancer Dances,” filmmaker Maia Wechsler’s compelling documentary about the restaging of legendary dance pioneer Merce Cunningham’s iconic 1968 “RainForest.” It is that intimate process of passing on the dance that informs Wechsler’s film, as former Cunningham dancers impart their intuition, intelligence and muscle memory to the next generation. It is also the first documentary on Cunningham’s work, timed to coincide with the centennial of his birth this year.

Cunningham died in 2009 at the age of 90, leaving a body of work that spanned more than 60 years. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company disbanded in 2012, so there was no longer a home company to perform them. After his passing and Petronio’s mentor Trisha Brown falling ill, Petronio, 63, was determined to keep their work alive. In 2014, he received permission from the Merce Cunningham Trust to restage “RainForest” for the Stephen Petronio Company. Wechsler, who also received the trust’s consent, had complete access to the intense three-week rehearsal process, as the dancers and teachers strived to re-create the work.

“It’s an iconic and beautiful work, one of the quintessential landmarks in the late 20th century,” Petronio said. Cunningham’s dramatic choreography was inspired by the rain forest near he grew up in Washington State. It is accompanied by an electronic environment score by David Tudor that emulates the chirping and chattering of birds and beasts; Andy Warhol’s installation “Silver Clouds,” floating helium-filled silver Mylar pillows; and flesh-colored leotards cut with a razor blade, by artist Jasper Johns. “Crazy collaborations that set the clock forward,” Petronio stated.

In the 30-plus years of Petronio’s company, the dancers had only performed his works, so he knew they would be challenged. “I took a Cunningham class and said it was not for me,” Petronio admitted. “My muscles are not meant to do this. But I began to understand his mind and what he was doing in space and the relationship to movement. It opened the door to so much more creation. I wouldn’t be here as a creator unless Merce opened that door for me.”

Petronio enlisted the expertise of three former Merce Cunningham Dance Company members —Andrea Weber (MCDC, 2004-2011), Meg Harper (MCDC, 1968-1971) and Rashaun Mitchell (MCDC, 2004-2011), who had all danced in the piece, to teach his company. Of Petronio’s dancers, Weber said, “They absolutely can do this, but they will have to work in a different place in their body. All of us are feeling our way. It’s a great responsibility.”

Harper, who was Cunningham’s duet partner in the 1977 revival, said, “I wanted to give them a sense of the basic aesthetics of Merce’s work, to get rid of style and do the pure movement. That’s a problem sometimes.”

An unexpected gift was the discovery of the original 1968 premiere in Buffalo, filmed by pioneer documentarians D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, as well as a black-and-white documentary of a rehearsal in the Cunningham studio in 1967, made by a German film crew. “It gave us a treasure trove of images to enhance and deepen our understanding of the choreographer, the era, the creative process and the transmission of the dance taking place in front of our eyes,” said Wechsler.

Also included in the doc was film footage of several other productions, including Mitchell reprising Cunningham’s solos and his duets with Weber, which they taught to Gino Grenek and Davalois Fearon, respectively. Grenek, 42, noted that Cunningham was also in his 40s when he performed this, but “all the things that are in my comfort zone are not in my role.”

Wechsler also sought out interviews with former Cunningham dancers, like Gus Solomons Jr, Albert Reid, Silas Riener, Melissa Toogood and Sandra Neels, among others, who gave insightful comments on their experiences working with the choreographer. Toogood, who was one of the last dancers hired by Cunningham and was with him as he transitioned into a wheelchair, reprised her former role in “RainForest” with the Petronio company. She talked about the intimacy of the dance studio, how free the choreography made her feel in contrast to the Petronio dancers who admitted to her they were struggling.

“RainForest” premiered at The Joyce Theater in spring 2015 to critical success. But for Harper and Weber it was also tinged with nostalgia and sadness. Toogood said, “Giving the work to someone else, I think there has to be some breathing room for it to live and not to be empty.” Harper added, “The real beauty of the transmission takes place after we have left.” Indeed, three months later, we see Grenek teaching his role to Petronio dancer Joshua Tuason.

As for the title of the film, the full quote by Merce Cunningham is “If the dancer dances, everything is there.”

The rehearsals and performances of “RainForest” marked the inauguration of Petronio’s “Bloodlines” project, honoring his lineage by presenting works of 20th century choreographers who inspire his own choreography.

Cunningham’s centennial is being celebrated worldwide this year with performances, installations, films and other special events. For further information, including where to see “If the Dancer Dances,” visit www.mercecunningham.org/activities.
Stephen Petronio

Stephen Petronio


Meg Harper and Davalois Fearon in IF THE DANCER DANCES (Monument Releasing)

Meg Harper and Davalois Fearon in IF THE DANCER DANCES (Monument Releasing)


Davalois Fearon and Nicholas Sciscione in IF THE DANCER DANCES (Monument Releasing)

Davalois Fearon and Nicholas Sciscione in IF THE DANCER DANCES (Monument Releasing)

Photo © & courtesy of Photographer Unknown


Jaqlin Medlock and Nicholas Sciscione in IF THE DANCER DANCES (Monument Releasing)

Jaqlin Medlock and Nicholas Sciscione in IF THE DANCER DANCES (Monument Releasing)

Photo © & courtesy of Photographer Unknown

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