IF THE DANCER DANCES – A Review by Cynthia Flores


IF THE DANCER DANCES – A Review by Cynthia Flores

In 1968 at the top of his game Merce Cunningham debuted a dance called RainForest.  It had a set designed by Andy Warhol, costumes by Jasper Johns cut with a razor blade and music by David Tudor.  It was exhilarating and groundbreaking at the time of its premiere.  He danced the lead in what became an iconic piece that he also choreographed.  His Merce Cunningham Dance Company had performed it when he was alive.  When he passed away at the age of ninety in his will, he requested that his well-known dance company be dissolved.  The director Maia Wechsler found the decision dramatic and final.  She wondered what happens to sixty years of pioneering work?  Does it just vanish?  You can go to a museum and see Picasso’s life’s work.  But, there’s nowhere to go to experience the same for Cunningham.  Most people had never thought about what it takes to keep a dance alive.  That is why she decided to make a film that would capture how dance is passed from “body to body,” one generation of dancers to the next.

Luckily for the filmmaker, modern dancer Stephen Petronio, one of today’s leading dancemakers, had just licensed the rights to re-create RainForest.  He was determined to help his dancers of the Stephen Petronio Company breathe new life into Rainforest.  With the help of three members of the former Cunningham company that were still alive and able to teach the Cunningham style of dance, the film tracks Petronio’s dancers as they strive to restage this great work.  Revealing to us what it actually takes to keep a dance and a legacy alive.

If The Dancer Dances is timed to coincide with the Cunningham Centennial, he was born in 1919.  It’s the first documentary on the subject of Cunningham’s work since his passing in 2009.  I truly felt like a fly on the wall while watching this documentary.  Watching Petronio’s dancers struggling to not only learn a different language of dancing that Cunningham had created but to also do the man’s memory and his incredible work justice.  That is a lot of pressure to work under.  To the filmmaker’s credit, you feel like you’re in that studio alongside the dancers as they sweat and give their all to this piece.

I give If The Dancer Dances an A rating.  If you’re a dancer, you’ll see the film and say, “Yeah, they nailed it.”  If you’re someone who enjoys the art form from the comfort of your seat, it will give you a whole new appreciation for what it takes to put on that performance.


Directed by: Maia Wechsler

Running Time:  83min

Selig Rating A


Limited Release: VOD November 12th

Starring: Stephen Petronio, Merce Cunningham, Davalois Fearson, Gino Grenek, Meg Harper


The Selig Rating Scale:

A – Excellent movie, well worth the price.

B – Good movie

C – OK movie

D – No need to rush. Save it for a rainy day.

F – Good that I saw it on the big screen but wish I hadn’t paid for it.

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