Still from If the Dancer Dances

Meg Harper and Davalois Fearon in If the Dancer Dances (Monument Releasing)

Exploring Artistic Investigation in If the Dancer Dances

The heart of dance – just as is with all tumultuous and symphonic forms of artistic expression – is a pas de deux between love and conflict. No better reflection of such coupling exists than the documentary, If the Dancer Dances.

The film is directed by Maia Wechsler and curated by former Merce Cunningham dancer, Lise Friedman. As this duo captures the intimate and electric world of one choreographer’s aim to re-stage Merce Cunningham’s work on a company other than Cunningham’s own, we see the memories of Merce’s dancers. Through them, we see Merce himself. As his dancers etch Cunningham choreography onto new bodies, the transmission of idea begins, and exposed is the true nature of dance history. Neither lived in museum nor textbook. Dance exists – purely and most profoundly – when it is lived in and breathed by the bloodline of dance. Through this transmission, Cunningham’s work can and ever will live beyond the Merce’s own final bow.

Stephen Petronio, director and choreographer known for his movement with no punctuation, embarked upon the task of setting Merce Cunningham’s piece, RainForest, on his titular company. Cunningham, as Petronio remarks, was, “the bedrock of artistic investigation in the dance world.” After Merce passed and when Petronio’s own mentor, Trisha Brown, got sick, Petronio said, “the adult world as I know it cracked,” and he questioned how to keep their work alive. Petronio’s answer was, “to continue.”

Thus, Stephen paired former Cunningham dancers with his own Stephen Petronio Dance Company dancers to set Cunningham’s abstract and Andy Warhol-infused work, RainForest. Few tasks could have been taller for Petronio and his company members as Cunningham technique is a far pendulum swing from Petronio’s quintessential kinetic movement. Cunningham choreography is known for pure, un-stylized movement without intention and yet intentionally rebellious against dancing in tandem with music. This paired with Petronio-trained dancers sounds like madness. Or magic. As former Cunningham dancer, Gus Solomon’s Jr. states, “the very fast-ness and very slow-ness approach impossibility. And that is exciting.”

If the Dancer Dances film poster

If the Dancer Dances, Everything is There

We see the technical prowess of Petronio’s dancers at odds with that of what Cunningham’s work requires. As Petronio company member and RainForest dancer, Nick Sciscione, states, “I’m afraid it’s going to be wrong. It’s gonna always be wrong.” Yet, if there is a wrong 99% of the time, a dancer will stay until the brutal end for the 1% yes. Through their tribulations with translating such work, we see Petronio’s dancers learn to initiate differently, to bend their abilities and move from different origins. We see them reach for the branch unknown and dance with the electricity of impossibility.

For the Stephen Petronio Company to premier Merce Cunningham’s work, RainForest, at the Joyce Theater in New York City was a gamble. And yet, whether reckless or responsible, as Merce himself had said, “if the dancer dances, everything is there.” The struggle, the attempt, the mess, the symphony, and the glory, it is all within the bloodline of bodies in love, in conflict, and forever in process. To spend one’s life perfecting a fleeting moment is the way, and, as Cunningham dancer, Meg Harper remarks, “the real beauty of the transmission takes place after we’ve left.”