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Most artists reflect a new point of view at the beginning of their career, but few of them stay in the vanguard all the way to the end—Merce Cunningham is one choreographer whose innovations were still breaking rules and challenging audiences for over 50 years. His insistence that dance remained independent of narrative, character, or traditional theatrical structures placed him outside the mid-20th century aesthetic of his early cohort. By the time the first post-modern choreographers were making their own investigations in the 1960s and 70s, he was already an established artist—his work opened the door for the Judson generation, who continued to work outside traditional theater, but he was always a little apart from them, a kind of detached mentor rather than a colleague.

Stephen Petronio is, in a way, a collateral descendant of Cunningham – he began dancing for Judson alumna Trisha Brown in the 70s, absorbing her kinetic eccentricity, and when he came to make his own dances he continued that use of momentum and dynamism. In the new documentary film, If the Dancer Dances, he admits that though he was never a Cunningham-style mover, he has inherited that independence. Cunningham was “the bedrock of artistic investigation in the dance world,” so that when he died in 2009, and Brown was diagnosed with a degenerative disease at the same time, Petronio felt that “the adult world as I knew it cracked.”  

Cunningham had arranged for his company to disband after his death, but Petronio was concerned that the repertory would fade away. So after presenting his own work exclusively for 30 years, he arranged for his company to learn Cunningham’s seminal 1968 RainForest. With its evocative helium-filled pillows by Andy Warhol, and music and costumes by David Tudor and Jasper Johns, it’s always been one of the most easily recognizable of Cunningham’s repertory, and a smart choice for what would become a very important reconstruction.

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

If the Dancer Dances follows the process of bringing RainForest back to the stage. The film spends plenty of time in the studio with the company, following the initial, slightly awkward rehearsals and the dancer’s emerging frustration with changing styles as they struggle to embody a different physicality than they’ve been trained for. Petronio’s artists are clearly grounded in release techniques, comfortable caroming across the stage in exhilarating modulations of energy and shifting initiation. Cunningham’s signature movement style is highly refined and articulated – in order to be able to move any body part in any direction at any time, his dancers must be exquisitely controlled. The technique can be intimidating – Petronio dancer Nick Sciscione is partly joking when he says “Cunningham really evokes fear,” but the comment is close to the bone. Dava Fearon, a senior dancer, is accustomed to being a mentor and a leader in the group, but this experience shifts that dynamic— “We have to grapple with not knowing.” And Gino Grenek, who is Petronio’s assistant as well as a performer, is cast in Cunningham’s role, which is additional stress. “I’ve never been the fastest dancer in the room (picking up choreography) … I’m 42—I think when RainForest premiered Merce was in his 40’s, which is a kind of relief.”

Petronio wanted to get stagers who had a direct connection to RainForest for this project. “The Cunningham dancers will give us their intuition and their intelligence and their muscular memory.”  The three stagers came from different eras of the company: Meg Harper danced with Cunningham in the 1977 “Dance in America” broadcast of RainForest, and talks about his performance intensity being “like the sun.” She feels a sense of responsibility to him as she reconstructs his choreography – “It’s a little tricky, it’s a little stressful.You want to remember it (correctly)  And it’s not yours – it’s Merce’s.” Andrea Weber, who does the majority of the staging, and Rashaun Mitchell were with the company at its end, and are both full of details. Mitchell danced Cunningham’s role, and understands how that might be intimidating, but “it was clear he didn’t want us to be the people who had come before … he wanted us to find our own selves in the movement.”

Merce Cunningham in RainForest. Photo by Martha Keller 1968.
Image courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Trust.

Alongside these scenes from the studio, director Maia Wechsler gives us plenty of interview footage from a wide variety of sources. Gus Solomons Jr and Albert Reid were both in the original production of the work, and have sympathy for the Petronio dancers as they deal with the challenges in the choreography. Solomons, who went on himself to have a substantial career as a dance maker, is particularly observant about the differences between Cunningham then and Petronio now. “Stephen’s work is all about motion—it’s generational as well. That nothing stops, that there’s no moments of stillness—that just produces anxiety, because you should be doing something else, you should be onto the next thing. But it’s always exciting to watch because it has such kinetic flow. In a sense, Stephen’s work can not stop—in a sense Merce’s work can always stop, there’s always a photograph there, because you’re always in control.”

RainForest is an example of Cunningham at his most incisive—seeing it here, as it shifts from the work of a living choreographer to a milestone in the history of dance, gives us a chance to see how the field has changed, and the direction we’re heading now. We continue to grapple with preserving and understanding our past, while we are busily making our future. It’s heartening to see a moment where these two tasks are working together. As a documentary, If the Dancer Dances is actually fairly conventional—we see the challenge set up early in the film, follow along with the struggle, and then finish with a successful performance and a moment where the process of passing along the choreography begins again. But its wealth of archival footage interspersed with thoughtfully shot rehearsal material and sincerely touching interviews shift it beyond this familiar skeleton. It’s a generous and truthful look into the dance world, past and present.

If the Dancer Dances shows at Northwest Film Forum, May 10-16, 2019. Includes a  panel discussion with Spectrum Dance Theater Artistic Director Donald Byrd, led by Cornish Dance Dept Chair Victoria Watts, Ph.D. on May 12th at 7pm.
1515 12th Ave. 206-329-2629.