Shortly before the opening credits roll in Maia Wechsler’s lovely documentary If the Dancer Dances, Newark-born, New York City-based choreographer Stephen Petronio says, “The beauty and tender and amazing thing about dance is that it gets passed from one body and one soul to another. There’s something so precious and beautiful about that, yet it’s very fragile. It comes out of the body, it goes into the air, and then it disappears.” In 2014, Petronio announced his “Bloodlines” initiative, in which his company would restage iconic works by Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Anna Halprin, Yvonne Rainer, and Steve Paxton. The series began with Cunningham’s 1968 masterpiece, RainForest, and writer, director, and producer Maia Wechsler and writer and producer Lise Friedman followed the production from the casting stage to three weeks of intense rehearsals with former Cunningham dancers through to the first public presentation of the work at the Joyce in 2015. “I was shocked. I said, Stephen would never in a million years do any other choreographer’s work,” Stephen Petronio Company dancer Dava Fearon says.
She is joined by fellow company members Gino Grenek, Nicholas Sciscione, Emily Stone, Joshua Tuason, Barrington Hines, and Jaqlin Medlock and special guest Melissa Toogood, a former Cunningham dancer, as they rehearse the piece at DANY Studios on West Thirty-Eighth St., led by former Cunningham stagers Meg Harper, Rashaun Mitchell, and Andrea Weber, who painstakingly go over every intricate motion with the dancers, training Petronio’s team as Cunningham trained them. Petronio’s dancers desperately try to learn Cunningham’s very different, unique movement language, which is clearly not easy, as it requires them to use unfamiliar muscle memory and timing that they find extremely frustrating. “Merce never told us any of these images. He never, ever, ever told us what to think or what to feel,” Mitchell explains about Cunningham’s method, which was done without music. Wechsler speaks with former Cunningham dancers Albert Reid, Silas Reiner, Sandra Neels, and Gus Solomons Jr, several of whom were in the original production of RainForest at Buffalo State College in March 1968. “It was the quintessence of stripped-down abstraction,” Reid says of the piece. Wechsler also includes rare footage of performances of RainForest from 1968, 1970, 1977, and 2011, the earlier ones featuring Cunningham, who is a treat to watch onstage, in cut-up costumes by Jasper Johns and moving amid the Mylar balloons of Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds floating around his body. The film is edited by Mary Manhardt with Adam Zucker, who imbue the film with the pace of a dance as they shift between rehearsals, interviews, and archival clips. As opening night approaches, the cast has a lot of work still to do, everyone concerned whether they’ll be ready to perform in front of the highly knowledegable New York City audience. Through it all, Petronio, who considers Cunningham and Brown his “artistic parents” — he was the first male to be in the Trisha Brown Dance Company — primarily works with Harper from the sidelines, sitting and watching as she gets deep into worry mode, doing whatever she can to protect Cunningham’s treasured, and carefully controlled, legacy. In that way, If the Dancer Dances unfolds like a thriller about the creative process; you don’t have to be a dance fan to get caught in its grip.
If the Dancer Dances — the title comes from the start of a Cunningham quote — features an enchanting score by Paul Brill, including the beautiful song “Everything I Believe In” that plays over the closing credits, so don’t be so quick to leave the theater. The film opens April 26 at the Quad, enriched with special appearances by the creators all weekend. Wechsler, Friedman, and Petronio will participate in a Q&A moderated by Alastair Macaulay after the 7:00 screening April 26, and Wechsler and Friedman will introduce the 9:00 show; on April 27, there will be Q&As with Wechsler, Friedman, Grenek, Solomons jr, and Mitchell, moderated by Julie Malnig, at the 1:00 show and with Wechsler, Friedman, Solomons jr, and Harper, moderated by Deborah Jowitt, at the 7:00 screening, while Wechsler and Friedman will introduce the 9:00 show; and on April 28 there will be a Q&A with Wechsler, Friedman, and Fearon, moderated by Macaulay, after the 1:00 screening.