If the Dancer Dances is a new documentary film directed by Maia Wechsler. It follows one of New York City’s top dance groups, led by top choreographer Stephen Petronio, as they set out to revive and re-stage the iconic masterwork RainForest by the late and great choreographer Merce Cunningham.
The story of the movie is definitely very intriguing. Petronio establishes early on in the film that this process is new for him, as his group usually performs his own choreography rather than re-staging iconic works of others, immediately establishing the movie’s relatively high stakes (at least in his eyes). It is interesting to get this inside look at the creative process and how artists strive to live up to their predecessors.
The pacing of the film is relatively strong. The movie clocks in at a brisk hour and twenty-three minutes, so there is very little time for it to have wasted. If anything, the film feels somewhat rushed at times, not exploring the story in its entirety. Much of the movie is spent exploring the process leading up to the performance and very little is spent on the performance itself. It would have been nice to see more of the end result about which we are seeing and hearing so much.
The film does a solid job of making Petronio into a compelling subject. He is given an ambition which we as the audience are able to get behind, and the emotional arc of the movie is him coming to achieve those lofty goals which he sets for himself. However, one thing that the film does do unsatisfyingly is development of the dancers. The movie would have been able to form an even deeper connection had there been more interviews with the other people involved in the story.
Even if you don’t know the players in the film (most audiences likely won’t), the movie will make you admire and appreciate the level of effort and hard work these artists must put into their performances. Seeing the process through from point A to point B allows you to see the tremendous detail and attention that Petronio and his dancers put into what they do. If this film doesn’t make you admire dance as art, nothing will.
Additionally, the movie has a thought-provoking message about time. Many aspects of the film discuss the relationship between time and art. Are modern audiences still going to appreciate this masterwork from the past? Are modern dance techniques going to be able to do it justice? Does art have value if it is forgotten over time? These are just some of the many questions the movie poses to the audience and subjects of the film.
On a technical level, the film was mostly strong, if a bit straightforward. One would think that the visual style would be flashier than it is given the largely visual nature of the art of dance, but instead, the movie takes a much more subtle approach. Rather than telling the story with a ton of flash and gimmicks, director Wechsler lets the dance speak for itself, captivating the audience with its beauty.
Overall, If the Dancer Dances was a solid documentary. If you have any interest in dance at all, you will likely be fascinated by this film, but even if you don’t, it is still solidly-crafted and has a unique story.
If the Dancer Dances opens in theaters on April 26.