There are two documentary films available at OVID.tv that both deal with works by the American choreographer Merce Cunningham being restaged for dancers who were not members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. I have chosen to write about both films to demonstrate how restaging can be made difficult or how it can be a true joy for the dancers learning the work. The two films are If the Dancer Dances (2018) directed by Maia Wechsler and the other is August Pace: 1989-1999 (2022) directed by Daniel Madoff.
If the Dancer Dances gets its title from a quote by Merce Cunningham, “If the dancer dances everything is there,” was filmed in New York City over a period of several months with three former Cunningham company members, Meg Harper, Rashaun Mitchell, and Andrea Weber, teaching Cunningham’s 1968 work Rainforest to dancers in the Stephen Petronio Dance Company as part of Petronio’s Bloodlines series which pays homage to dance legacy. The original cast of Rainforest was Merce Cunningham, Barbara Lloyd Dilly, Albert Reid, Gus Solomons, Jr., Carolyn Brown, and Sandra Neels. The set was by Andy Warhol with an original score by David Tudor.
August Pace: 1989-2019 was also filmed in New York City during a repertory workshop given by the Merce Cunningham Trust. August Pace premiered in 1989 and the repertory workshop was in 2019, hence the title. The original cast included 15 dancers: Helen Barrow, Kimberly Bartosik, Michael Cole, Emma Diamond, Victoria Finlayson, Alan Good, Chris Komar, David Kulick, Patricia Lent, Larissa McGoldrick, Dennis O’Connor, Robert Swinston, Carol Teitelbaum, Jenifer Weaver, and Robert Wood. What made this workshop so unique was that all but 2 of the 15 original cast members were there to teach August Pace to the dancers taking the workshop. Chris Komar passed away in 1996 and Robert Swinston was unavailable, as he was working with his company at the time.
The dancers who attended the repertory workshop were Wanessa Knouse, Ernesto Breton, Caitlin Javech, Justin Lynch, Caroline Haidet, Reid Bartelme, Mariah Anton, Ryan Pliss, Chaery Moon, Gary Champi, Eve Jacobs, Mac Twining, Calleja Smiley Welsh, Logan Pedon, and Jaqueline Calle. The workshop understudies were Emily Bernet, Emma Cohen, Andrew Harper, and Love Hellgren.
Both films show the rehearsal period, the teaching of the movement from one dancer to another, original cast members talking about the process, discussions between dancers, and clips of the performances afterwards. It is this intimate recording that caught my eye regarding the process of transferring movement from one dancer to another and that difference shows in the final results.
With If The Dancer Dances, in an attempt to get it “right” and to stay true to Cunningham’s work, the attention was far too great on minute details. You can see how the dancers learning the piece are struggling to interpret Cunningham’s work into their bodies and the essence of the work is lost. It begins to look like mere steps and not dancing. A couple of shots of an interview with Gus Solomons, Jr. tells explains it best. He is brutally honest with his critique.
When it came time for the original cast members of August Pace to teach their parts to the students taking the workshop, they chose to spend the time one on one, each dancer teaching his or her part of the dance. This method of teaching the dance was close to how I remember learning Rainforest, Scramble, Winterbranch, Variations V, Septet, and Place; all dances that were choreographed on other dancers before I joined the company. In rehearsal, the person teaching me danced the part full out phrase by phrase and I learned the movement by copying them. Once I learned a section, I was coached on timing and quality, but left alone to own the movement; to make it my own within the style of the work. I wasn’t over-coached and therefore the movement continued to feel alive. When we learned a new work, Cunningham himself demonstrated the movement and we learned it from him.
Both films are wonderful to watch and there are gems of history passed down from dancer to dancer. They talk about working with Cunningham and what he did and did not say to them about the works that they were in. A couple of times a dancer spoke about how Cunningham rehearsed them with his now famous stopwatch, telling them that they were a few seconds too fast or too slow, but never really stating why or where. He wanted a certain timing and made his dancers repeat it until they achieved his goal.
Also, the Cunningham company rehearsed in silence and the majority of the time first heard the music at the same time the audience did. In both If the Dancer Dances and August Pace: 1989-2019, dancers are surprised that they indeed were not going to hear the music until performance time.
Stephen Petronio speaks poetically about how dance is passed down from dancer to dancer and about the difference between the movement styles of his work and Cunningham. For students, historians and lovers of dance the films at OVID.tv are worth so much more than the subscription fee.
To learn more about OVID.tv, please visit their website.
Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Stephen Petronio Dance Company in Merce Cunningham’s Rainforest – Courtesy of OVID.tv