If the Dancer Dances

The dancers rehearse.

(2018) Documentary (Monument) Stephen Petronio, Merce Cunningham (archival), Meg Harper, Davalois Fearon, Gino Grenek, Rashaun Mitchell, Sandra Neels, Jaqlin Medlock, Barrington Hinds, Albert Reid, Silas Riener, Nick Sciscione, Gus Solomons Jr., Emily Stone, Joshua Tuason, David Vaughan, Andrea Weber, Mike McGinnis, Mondo Morales, Melissa Toogood. Directed by Maia Wechsler

 

Please forgive me but the first bit of this review is going to be more about me than the movie – my knowledge of modern dance is abysmal. I am unfamiliar with the important figures in it, the innovators or the dance companies that push the boundaries of the art form. It’s not that I can’t appreciate grace when I see it, but often these days that’s not a factor. Perhaps because I’m not a graceful person whatsoever, but when I see dancers move in certain ways, I am awe-stricken. When I see them moving in ways that are more athletic than anything I tend to lose interest. You should know that going into this review.

Merce Cunningham is a towering icon of modern dance whose pieces worked in collaboration with some of the great artists of his time. Rain Forest, a 1968 piece apparently inspired by his youth in Washington state, utilized set design by Andy Warhol and costumes by Jasper Johns as well as music by David Tudor. Cunningham’s work was innovative and diametrically different from anything that dance was used to; most dance companies are constantly in motion but Cunningham used stillness, slow motion and held positions which were physically challenging to the dancers of his company. Cunningham was the lead dancer in the piece as he was in most of his own pieces until he was almost 90. Cunningham continued to work creating new choreography until he died in 2009.

Stephen Petronio runs a highly respected dance company of his own. His company up until 2015 had always performed original compositions. Petronio was grappling with the idea of legacy; how do we keep dance pieces alive after the choreographers are gone. Yes, there is video but if a choreography exists without anyone dancing it, how alive is it really?

Petronio decided to take on Rain Forest and utilized three members of Cunningham’s company – Meg Harper, Rashaun Mitchell and Andrea Weber – to teach his company the moves. We begin to see that there are vast differences between styles of modern dance. Cunningham rehearsed without music, using a stopwatch and clapped beats to give the dancers their cues. The Cunningham dancers are also having to teach Petronio’s dancers an entire new way of movement, one that emanates from the back rather than the legs. For the dancers it means a whole lot of cramping.

Cunningham is treated here with hero-worship and to be honest I found that disconcerting after a while. Not that he doesn’t deserve the respect but at times it felt like there wasn’t any objectivity whatsoever not only from the dancers who could be excused for their hagiography but from the filmmakers as well, who needed to be less worshipful. Producer Lise Friedman was also a member of the Cunningham company so perhaps that has something to do with it.

This is definitely a niche film. People who are fans of modern dance or at least well-acquainted with it will find this fascinating. Others might find it confusing and dull. Fans of performing arts in general will appreciate the backstage look at rehearsals and how the work is slowly translated from Cunningham’s dancers to Petronio’s. It is in that respect a fascinating process.

REASONS TO SEE: An intimate and fascinating look backstage.
REASONS TO AVOID: Verges on the hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was timed to coincide with Cunningham’s centennial.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Long Lost

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