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Review: "If the Dancer Dances," on recreating a Merce Cunningham masterwork

"The beauty of dance is that it gets passed from one body and soul to another … it goes into the air and then it disappears," says choreographer Stephen Petronio. Dancers perform brushstrokes in space, creating art with a language all their own in which they give physical expression to emotion, personalities, narratives, and views of the world, and even those who can't "speak" that language can at least appreciate how different dancers and choreographers may express themselves in unique dialects.

Members of the Stephen Petronio Dance Company rehearse a performance of the classic Merce Cunningham work, "RainForest," in the documentary "If the Dancer Dances." Monument Releasing

Petronio's experimental dance company recently decided to honor one of the most revolutionary figures in the late 20th century dance world, Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), by restaging his seminal 1968 work, "RainForest." What Petronio and his troupe learned is that, like taking an immersion foreign language course, learning the style and aesthetics of the master's work, from those (like Andrea Weber) who'd danced for the painstakingly precise Cunningham over the decades, is extremely challenging, not the least for subverting their understanding of their own bodies, their athleticism, and their function as interpretive artists.

The new documentary "If the Dancer Dances" (opening Friday in New York City) goes inside the rehearsal studio as Petronio's dancers painstakingly learn the intricacies of Cunningham's choreography while also bringing their own individual styles to the performance. Can these young dancers take ownership of a classic dance – performing their own individual take, as an actor might bring their own individual interpretation to a Shakespeare character – so that a work is kept alive and not preserved like a museum piece?

It's not easy – the weight of expectations, the demands of accommodating different aesthetics, and differing generational attitudes toward choreography make becoming acquainted with Cunningham a heavy task. The dancers experience an anxiety that is unusual for them, when those who'd performed "RainForest" decades ago give their two (or four, or ten) cents about what they are doing wrong. Of course, "wrong" isn't exactly the right word. But one must master an aesthetic, such as Cunningham's precision, his displays of what is referred to as "gentle power," and his peculiar timing (he never rehearsed dances to music, yet always kept a stopwatch handy), before you can break from it.

Cunningham teacher Meg Harper instructs Davalois Fearon in the film "If the Dancer Dances."  Monument Releasing

One Cunningham veteran, Melissa Toogood, understands the importance of Petronio's dancers taking ownership of the piece, to prevent the work from seeming "precious," because then it would evaporate, rather than remain in the hearts and minds of the audience. But the very nature of dance means that it is impermanent, so "preserving" a dance is like pushing water uphill.

When the recreation debuts, featuring Jasper Johns' original costume designs and Andy Warhol's set, one gets the feeling that these dancers have managed to surmount one more mountain in their artistic development, while introducing Cunningham to a new audience.

And because of director Maia Wechsler and producer Lise Friedman's marvelous documentary, we now have a preserved copy, not only of Cunningham's original idea (and of Petronio and Weber's rebirth) of "RainForest," but also the sweat of months of training and rehearsal, the memories of Cunningham veterans, and the personal trials of dancers who have committed themselves to an art form that lives foremost in muscle memory, movement, stillness, breath, and the collision of bodies in space. 

"If the Dancer Dances" (distributed by Monument Releasing) opens theatrically in New York City on April 26 and Los Angeles on May 3, with a national release to follow.  83 mins. The film is not rated.

To watch a trailer for "If the Dancer Dances" click on the video player below:

If The Dancer Dances Trailer - Documentary Movie by on YouTube

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