The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Merce Cunnigham’s legacy is preserved and passed on in ‘If The Dancer Dances’

Written by: Fiona Underhill, CC2K Staff Writer

When legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham passed away ten years ago, his company ceased to exist, upon his request. With dance being such an ethereal, fleeting artform, how can the legacy of such a titan be preserved? One way is to breathe new life into their signature works, by giving new companies and dancers an opportunity to give them their interpretation. This was the case when choreographer Stephen Petronio decided, for the first time, to produce a work with his company that was not an original composition. He chose to take on Cunningham’s seminal 1968 work RainForest, which had been a collaboration between Cunningham, Andy Warhol (who did the set design) and Jasper Johns (who did the costume design). Petronio enlisted dancers who had worked with Cunningham to help him with this project. Filmmakers Lise Friedman (producer and former member of the Merce Cunningham Company), Maia Wechsler (producer and director) and Mary Manhardt (editor) have set out to capture this rehearsal process and explore what happens when “dance is passed from body to body, one generation of dancers to the next.”

If there is one “star” of this documentary, it would be Andrea Weber, who had danced with the Merce Cunningham Company. She is brought in to translate a completely new style and different way of working to the Stephen Petronio Company. You can see how important it is to Weber that this staging is true to Cunningham. The two major unusual aspects of the Cunningham style is that firstly, he did not use music in rehearsal at all. The other is that he assigned no emotions or meanings to his work, he didn’t explain his ideas or use metaphors to get across what he wanted to his dancers. This is probably the main thing the Petronio dancers struggle with and you can see them adjusting to this new way of working in real time. Veteran dancer Meg Harper, who danced in the original 1968 production also comes in to assist with this translation of ideas.

The filmmakers were lucky enough that footage not only of the original production, but also rehearsal footage of Cunningham teaching in 1967 exists, so this could be inter-cut with the Petronio Company rehearsal footage. Many dancers who had worked with Merce are featured as talking heads, the most fascinating of whom is Gus Solomons Jr – a black dancer who explains that Cunningham “never saw a black woman who fit his image of what women dancers were – they didn’t look like the imprint he had of what female dancers should look like.” He describes Cunningham as traditional and conventional – he would not have male dancers lifting or even touching one another. We also see the Petronio dancers at home, including Dava Fearon – the first black female dancer to professionally perform Cunningham’s works and Gino Grenek – a dancer in his early 40s.

The original music by Paul Brill complements the film beautifully and is needed to fill the space left by the lack of diegetic music. Although the rehearsals are interesting, in and of themselves, you can almost feel the filmmakers wishing for more conflict and drama. The dancers do struggle to connect with the work, due to the emotionless and abstract nature of the piece and they need to have it explained in a language they can understand eg. “imagine you’re underwater” or “imagine you’re the sea pushing against the earth” but the Cunningham dancers push against describing any of the movements metaphorically. It is compelling to see the literal translation of a language of movement that has to happen from one style and technique to dancers who are completely unfamiliar with that way of working. Such ideas as “it all needs to come from your back” is one such way of thinking, feeling and moving that the Petronio dancers must contend with.

It is amazing to see the staging of the finished production at the end – with the Warhol silver helium balloons, which through some kind of magic are floating – some just touching the stage, some in mid-air and some high up in the gods. To see the dancers go from rehearsal room to the production space which has all kinds of new challenges – the Jasper Johns costumes, with cut-out pieces all over them, the balloons and the music (which they have not worked with at all) is overwhelming. One person who is not as central to the documentary as you might expect is Stephen Petronio himself, although he does talking heads and we learn a bit about his background, he virtually disappears during the rehearsals and lets the Cunningham dancers take over. You don’t really see his ‘spin’ or ‘interpretation’ on the piece, that comes more from the dancers themselves.

Lovers of theater and dance will find this documentary fascinating. The format of the film itself is not doing anything innovative or flashy, but not every documentary has to break the mold. There are already so many layers to what is going on on screen, with the subtle transposing of one (deceased) choreographer’s vision to a new company, that the film just needs to tell that story. It achieves a good balance between new and old rehearsal footage, talking heads and filming of the ‘everyday’ lives of the dancers. This does feel like a rare privilege – to have this level of access to the creation of a new work which is attempting to honor the legacy of such a legendary choreographer. You can see the gradual changes and improvements in the dancers across the course of the documentary and witness (some of) the finished product – it truly feels like you’ve experienced a journey with these people. The involvement of the dancers who actually worked with Merce Cunningham is the most valuable aspect – the knowledge they have in their brains and bodies is priceless and the fact that they are willing to pass that along to a new generation – the dancers and us, the viewer, is an archive to be treasured. An important document of an artistic process.

IF THE DANCER DANCES opens theatrically in New York (The Quad) on Friday, April 26 2019 and in Los Angeles on Friday, May 3 2019 (Laemmle Music Hall) with a national release to follow. 2019 marks Merce Cunnigham’s Centennial, so this is being celebrated worldwide with performances, installations, films and other special events to honor his legacy. 

Rating: 3.5 Stars out of 5