Preserving modern art with ‘If the Dancer Dances’

If the Dancer Dances is a documentary directed by Maia Weschler and produced by Lise Friedman, focused on the Stephen Petronio Company’s reconstruction of Merce Cunningham’s “The Rainforest.”. (BV: 3.5/5)

Review by Intern Beatrice Viri

To celebrate the deceased choreographer Mercier “Merce” Cunningham’s impact on modern dance, the Stephen Petronio Company honors his legacy by performing one of his most iconic and enigmatic works, “The Rainforest.” If the Dancer Dances follows a chronological timeline of Petronio’s talented dancers and their intense practices as they prepare for their premiere at the Joyce Theater in NYC. Instructors who worked under Cunningham drill his expertise into Petronio’s performers, and they speak of their struggles with adapting to a completely different style of dance after performing for Petronio’s company for so long. Along with Petronio’s cast, however, are Cunningham’s old colleagues and those familiar with this particular piece, as well as archival footage of his old performances. The question of how to preserve the art of dance as time progresses is asked in a carefully constructed, dynamic documentary for all appreciators of performance art.

If the Dancer Dances has a high production value, above all else — the shots are of incredibly high quality, and the score is dramatic and trance-like, moving with the motions of the dancers and adrenaline-pumping during climactic scenes. It’s indisputably gorgeous and a well put together film — the editors (Mary Manhardt, Adam Zucker, Kent Bassett) and cinematographers did incredible, visually appealing work. 

However, the subject itself is very niche. Unless you have a background in dance or are familiar with Cunningham’s work, I feel that many of the nuances and little details will go over the average moviegoer’s head. The lead dance instructor mentions that she is an Aries, a seemingly offhand little quip, but the documentary helped feed the stereotype. In astrology, Aries are known for being extreme perfectionists, and the instructor constantly nitpicked at details that others thought were individualistic quirks—and aspects that most people, like me, probably wouldn’t ever notice. I’m unsure if this was included by the filmmakers on purpose, but it framed her in a bad light.

Admittedly, however, I didn’t start taking interest until one of the lead dancers, Dava, spoke about the political and racial implications of her appearance in the dance—how, as an African-American female, the performance was groundbreaking for representation. Modern dance is an art that historically has been mostly accessible to affluent white people, so every step is still an important breakthrough. Though one of Cunningham’s former dancers (Gus Solomons Jr.) was a black male, a segment in the film explains that Cunningham had never used any female dancer of color. Ironically, despite Cunningham’s innovative vision with his own form, his beliefs about dance were strictly traditional. A female of color had never “fit his vision,” so Dava’s mere presence is significant in itself. In my opinion, that moment was the climax of the film as it brought a very relevant issue to light, and after Dava’s interview the following buildup as the dancers were also nearing their final performance became a lot more engaging.

All together, If the Dancer Dances truly is a beautiful film, though probably most suited for those with interest in the abstractness of modern dance. Even so, those with a penchant for art will at least be able to appreciate it.

© Beatrice Viri (4/25/19) FF2 Media

Does If the Dancer Dances pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?

Yes —-the main instructor, who is female, gives pointers to the dancers, and Dava actively partakes in discussion as welll.

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