If the Dancer Dances

April 16th marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of modern dance legend Merce Cunningham. He was one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century with a career that spanned 60 years. This spring, the world is awash in a celebration of his life and work, from live dance performances in New York, London, and Los Angeles (“Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event”) to Livestreams on the Merce Cunningham web site. 

If the Dancer Dances comes along at the perfect time to pay homage to the man, his troop, and his choreography. The film is an insider’s look at the daunting task of re-staging one of Cunningham’s signature pieces, “Rain Forest,” by one of today’s leading dance-makers, Stephen Petronio.  

Photo of Stephen Petronio
Credit: Stephen Petronio

Petronio has had a dance company for over 30 years, but his dancers have danced only his creations … until now. This 87-minute documentary captures the intimate world inside his dance studio, where he and his dancers work to recreate the 18-minute masterpiece.  Petronio recruited 3 former members of the Cunningham group to help. Just one of them danced this piece in 1968, but all absorbed the singular style of their teacher. Together, they set out to re-mold the technique of this New York troop and keep “Rain Forest” alive. And it wasn’t an easy task, as Meg Harper, who actually danced the piece with Cunningham, explained. “It’s a little stressful teaching the material. It’s not your work, it’s Merce’s and it has to look a certain way.”  

Over a period of months, the details of this enormous challenge become clear – the painstaking repetition, the nuances of the movements, the interaction of the dancers. And it’s more than simply memorizing the steps. It’s also about incorporating layers of emotion on top of that. This passion is really what resonated with me.  And it’s evident with each dancer. Through stunning close-ups and revealing interview bites, we hear their fears of failure, we see their joy in discovery of a new form, and we feel their gritty determination to master Cunningham’s work and bring it to life again. 

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

As Petronio so eloquently put it, “the beauty and amazing thing about dance is that it gets passed from one body and one soul to another. There is something so precious and beautiful about that, yet it’s very fragile … it only exists in the moment. And that moment becomes precious since it disappears.”  Luckily for all of us, it now exists on film.

I’m not sure that this story will appeal to everyone, especially if dance is not your thing.  It’s a deep dive into the most technical and emotional aspects of putting together a masterwork where everyone is totally immersed in their craft, as well as Merce Cunningham lore.  But for anyone who sees meaning in hard work, dedication, and the grace of striving for that perfect moment, they will be more than rewarded.

Top photo: Meg Harper and Davalois Fearon in IF THE DANCER DANCES (Monument Releasing)

About Paula M. Levine (24 Articles)
Paula is an award-winning writer, producer, and storyteller who has spent over twenty years producing news, feature stories, documentaries, and web content. Since 2014, she has also taught Writing and Media Relations at NYU in their Masters Program in PR and Corporate Communication. In her "copious spare time", she runs, bikes, and swims; and has completed 7 NYC Marathons.