When faced with the loss of past masters in the world of dance, choreographer Stephen Petronio is left with an urgent question: “How do we keep their work alive?” Maia Wechsler’s If the Dancer Dances chronicles his answer.
The film follows Petronio’s company in their quest to conquer RainForest, a landmark piece by legendary modern choreographer Merce Cunningham. With a release coinciding with the late artist’s centennial, the documentary sets out to honor Cunningham’s legacy while also reflecting on the fleeting nature of his chosen art form, grappling with how to preserve work that only exists from moment to moment, breath to breath.
Those who aren’t familiar with Cunningham’s work can still access his unique style through the visual language of the film. Archive footage from past RainForest productions — including its original 1968 run starring Cunningham himself — is juxtaposed against the current rehearsal sequences.
This brings a focus to the piece’s most challenging steps: the molasses-slow extension of an arm above the head; a hulking crab-walk along the length of the stage; a sequence of fast-paced prances from foot to foot.
These actions may appear simple on the surface, but the exacting work that generations of dancers have put into each step proves that they’re anything but easy; indeed, seeing companies throughout the years tackle the same movements makes the monumental challenge of RainForest, and of Cunningham’s aesthetic as a whole, that much more palpable.
The strongest points of the doc are its spotlights on individual dancers in Petronio’s company — from Gino Grenek, who is tasked with inhabiting Cunningham’s original role, to Dava Fearon, the first woman of color to perform professionally in a Cunningham routine. Their rehearsal processes provide the film with its most immediate sense of drama, as they are saddled with the responsibility of emulating the late choreographer’s style to an exacting degree.
Here, the greatest challenge facing this group of artists quickly proves to be the legacy of Cunningham himself; both dancers and instructors alike are hyperfocused on preserving his art precisely as he imagined it and must come to terms with the role that interpretation and reinvention takes in honoring someone’s work.
Wechsler (Sisters in Resistance) is conscious of that struggle, too. She faces her own pressure to impart Cunningham’s significance to her audience while grounding the doc in a completely separate group of players. If the Dancer Dances occasionally gets caught between these two threads and doesn’t always stick the landing.
For much of its first half, the film leans a bit too heavily into reflections about Cunningham himself rather than taking the time to introduce us to the dancers who are carrying on his legacy. These segments on Cunningham do provide some helpful historical context, but they also delay in giving the audience emotional access to these key subjects — we don’t get Grenek’s candid thoughts about RainForest until it’s practically showtime.
With that said, If the Dancer Dances eventually manages to emerge from Cunningham’s shadow, easing to provide more of a focus on the Petronio dancers as they unlock RainForest for themselves. In a particularly powerful moment, one of the last dancers to ever personally study under Cunningham, Melissa Toogood, observes that her fellow performers are too caught up in the details of her mentor’s work.
Over some striking footage of her in rehearsal with Cunningham himself in the last years of his life, Toogood offers some tender and much-needed perspective as the documentary enters its final stretch, framing her revival performance as both an act of remembrance as well as one of letting go.
This moment captures what If the Dancer Dances is at its best: a tribute to a genre-defining choreographer, as well as a meditation on the fleeting nature of his art itself. While the film doesn’t always give us access to its present-day subjects, it still offers valuable insight into issues of artistic preservation, showing us how Cunningham’s work is kept alive through the efforts of dancers grounded in the physical space of the dance studio.
Ultimately, we can choose to see the temporary nature of Cunningham’s work as what makes it so important to preserve; as Petronio summarizes, “that moment becomes precious because it disappears.”