Salute to Merce Cunningham.
Dance and I are only passing acquaintances, but I have boundless respect for those who immerse their lives in it and share it with audiences that include people like me.
So I was fascinated by Maia Wechsler’s “If The Dancer Dances,” an homage to iconic dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham, whose company was at the top of the modern dance world for some 50 years until his death in 2009.
Stephen Petronio, whose New York-based company has made its own mark on the dance world, decided his company would restage Cunningham’s iconic “Rainforest” as a centennial salute to the great choreographer.
Sounds easy enough, unless you know that Cunningham’s dance style – called “the quintessence of stripped-down abstraction” – was utterly different from Petronio’s, and this would require intensive training of Petronio’s dancers.
“The beauty .... and the amazing thing about dance is that it gets passed from one body, one soul, to another,” Petronio explains. “It comes out of the body, it goes into the air. And then it disappears.”
So the project required using three Cunningham veterans – Rashaun Mitchell, Meg Harper and Andrea Weber - to demonstrate the moves to Petronio’s dancers.
This is the process we see in the film.
It’s a fascinating and tricky undertaking, because individual expression is as much a part of dance as execution of steps in a certain way. Petronio’s dancers first had to learn what Cunningham wanted to say, and then put their own individual stamp on the final performance without doing violence to the original.
I’ve never seen the original version, so it’s impossible for me to judge “If The Dancer Dances” from that standpoint. But I found the film fascinating. I could identify with star Gino Grenek when he complains that “Everything is cramping,” in response to the contortions and long stretches en pointe required for this piece. I’ve had a similar intellectual, if not physical response when trying to learn a particularly difficult piece of music.
It’s all about dedication, repetition and finally muscle memory, passed from dancer to dancer.
Cunningham once said, “If the dancer dances, everything is there.” It certainly seems so in this film.
Recommended audience: Dance lovers, whether dancers or not.
Keep an eye out for this movie as it makes its way around the country and eventually San Diego.
Genres: Documentary/Musical & Performing Arts
MPAA Rating: NR
Studio: Monument Releasing
Runtime: 83 minutes
Directed by: Maia Wechsler
Cast: Davalois Fearon, Gino Grenek, Meg Harper