IF THE DANCER DANCES Film Review – An Intimate Examination of the Dancer’s Process

IF THE DANCER DANCES will be released on VOD and all major digital platforms including  Itunes, Amazon, Vimeo, Google, Sony, and NMS on November 12, 2019

A primitive drum beat.  Several bodies enter the frame.  These bodies move in varying tempos to the beat of the drum, forming abstract shapes and patterns.  The sound of a man’s clapping hands suddenly stops the momentum.  The man modifies the movement of these agile bodies, somehow making their motion appear more fluid.  The clapping hands belong to Stephen Petronio, choreographer, dancer and artistic director of the New York-based renowned Stephen Petronio Company.  We are witnessing a dance rehearsal.

Stephen Petronio has run his own dance company for thirty years.  His company of dancers have only performed works choreographed by him…until now. In honor of the legendary Merce Cunningham, Petronio embarks on a fascinating artistic journey to keep Cunningham’s work alive by restaging one of Cunningham’s most groundbreaking works, RainForestIf The Dancer Dances chronicles the progress of this restaging from initial rehearsal to first performance at New York City’s Joyce Theatre.  The film is not only a thrilling homage to Cunningham, but also an intimate exploration of dancers and their creations.

RainForest, which had its premiere in 1968, is considered a landmark piece in the world of modern dance.  The amalgamation of innovative choreography, Andy Warhol created silver pillows free-floating in air, primeval score by David Tudor and costumes by Jasper Johns of flesh-colored leotards and tights cut with a razor blade, adding to the primal nature of the piece, have thrilled audiences and critics for decades.  RainForest is one of Cunningham’s most autobiographical creations as his inspiration were his childhood memories of the rainforests in Washington State.

The Cunningham Method – Stripped Down Abstraction

Petronio enlists three dancers who danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at various points in the company’s history to teach the choreography of RainForest to the Petronio dancers.

We watch the Petronio dancers struggle as they try to embody a completely new technique in a short amount of time.  The pressure that the dancers put on themselves of not getting it “right” is palpable and weighs heavily upon them as they work completely out of their comfort zone.  The Petronio dancers are used to choreography that moves energy out into space - motion is key and the kinetic flow is constant.  Cunningham’s choreography, on the other hand, always stops.  Long difficult standing poses are the norm in Cunningham. Stillness is as important as flow.

We also watch the Cunningham dancers agonize as to how to teach this very difficult choreography that will both honor Cunningham but will give the dancers the freedom to make it their own.  Cunningham’s direction never relied on images and he never told his dancers what to think or how to feel.

IF THE DANCER DANCES is a Celebration of The Beauty of Dance

Stephen Petronio characterizes dance as coming out of the body, going into the air and then disappearing.  This film is a testament to the beautiful fragility of dance.  Merce Cunningham said it best – “If the dancer dances, everything is there.” In this reviewer’s opinion, If The Dancer Dances would not only appeal to dance lovers, but also to anyone involved in the arts and the creative process.


To view the film, visit IF THE DANCER DANCES.

Director - Maia Wechsler
Producers - Lise Friedman, Maia Wechsler
Composer - Paul Brill
Cinematographers - Eric Phillips-Horst, Alex Rappoport, Victoria Sendra, Scott Sinkler
Editors - Mary Manhardt, Adam Zucker (Co-Editor)

Editor's Note:  Please also see related Picture this Post stories about Merce Cunningham

Click here to read more Picture This Post Review of Top Pick Documentaries and watch this video --

Picture This Post Documentary Reviews RoundUp --Our Top Picks

Rachel Errington

About the Author:

Rachel Errington is a New York-based actor, producer and writer, originally from Los Angeles.  She recently produced and performed in “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” a short film headed for the festival circuit.   Rachel graduated from Northwestern with a degree in Theatre.  Favorite roles include Beatrice from “A View from the Bridge,” and the title roles in “Medea” and “Miss Julie.”  You can learn more about Rachel at www.rachelerrington.com.

Share this:

Make a Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *