Dance documentary's debut a golden occasion

Dance documentary's debut a golden occasion

A documentary about jazz genius Merce Cunningham is among the draws as Dance at Illinois presents the Flatlands Dance Film Festival on Friday and Saturday to mark the University of Illinois dance department’s 50th anniversary season.

It’s the Midwest premiere of “If the Dancer Dances,” a documentary showing how dancers teach the movement of the former Merce Cunningham Dance Company to a new group of dancers. The film festival will screen the winners of its short-film competition.

In the film, three former members of the Merce company teach Cunningham’s 1968 work, “Rainforest,” to the Stephen Petronio Company.

It’s Cunningham’s centenary — and what better time to show what it takes to keep a dance alive?

And what does the title mean?

“Dance is unlike any other art. It has no script or score. There’s no painting to hang on the wall, the creators say. If a dance is not danced, it vanishes,” according to promotional materials for the documentary, which was written and produced by Lise Friedman and Maia Wechsler and directed by Wechsler.

Friedman actually danced for the master.

“Dancing for Merce was all-consuming,” she said.

“The atmosphere in his studio was always charged. He worked quickly, and he never wasted time. Yet whether Merce was transmitting movement directly from his body to yours, or you were learning a role from another dancer, there was always the sense that he wanted you to find your way into the work. He was interested in the body-to-body transmission and even more in the process of a dancer making the work her own.”

She added, “Our film gives our audience intimate access to this process.”

Cunningham, who died in 2009, often worked with avant-garde composer John Cage to create dozens of famous works.

Among them: “Suite for Five” (1956-1958); “Rainforest (1968), with decor by Andy Warhol and costumes by an uncredited Jasper Johns; “Sounddance” (1975); “Fabrications” (1987); Ocean (1994); and “Split Side” (2003), which showed off his willingness to work with then-new music, including Radiohead.

The director of the documentary also has an inside knowledge of dance.

“I was headed toward a professional life in dance when I broke my ankle at the age of 18, which ended my career. After graduating from Barnard College with a degree in history, I worked as a journalist in Paris and the U.S.,” Wechsler said.

She has used her expertise in history and journalism to find a new love.

“I then made a turn to documentary film, which I’d loved since an early age, working with notable filmmakers,” Wechsler said.

“My previous feature-length award-winning documentaries are ‘Sisters In Resistance,’ about four friends who fought in the French Resistance against the Nazi occupation of France,” she said.

It was broadcast on PBS’ Independent Lens.  

Another of her works, “Melvin & Jean: An American Story,” about a political hijacking in 1972, was produced in cooperation with French television.

The festival’s Saturday presentations shows the adjudicated Short Films Competition Program, highlighting 16 short dance films from a variety of different countries.

A panel of local community members judged more than 460 submissions from 59 countries. This year’s adjudicators include Jerry Carden, Lisa Dixon and Fabiola Elias.

If you go

What: The Flatlands Dance Film Festival.

When: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Where: Spurlock Museum, 600 S. Gregory St., U.

Tickets: $10 general admission and $5 for students and senior citizens. They are available at the door.