From If the Dancer Dances (courtesy Monument Releasing)

Merce Cunningham’s 1968 ballet RainForest is representative of the cultural and artistic rebellion of the time. With Warhol’s “Silver Clouds” serving as the main set and David Tudor’s electronic score, Cunningham was inspired by the rain of the Pacific Northwest. Through its unconventional choreography, RainForest conveys an idea of freewheeling anarchy in the natural world. At the time, a New York Times article described the piece as a “woodland wonderland.”

In the new documentary If the Dancer Dances, we follow New York’s Stephen Petronio Company as it prepares to stage RainForest in 2015. It’s a career-defining moment for company founder Stephen Petronio, the first time he’s had his dancers perform a work that is not his. (This is also the first documentary on Cunningham’s work since his death in 2009.) Both Petronio and the documentary struggle to solve a crucial problem in the performing arts: How does one honor the legacy of a giant without resorting to parroting their work?

Cunningham proves a tough nut to crack. Dancer Nicholas Sciscione says that his work “evokes fear … I know there’s a whole vocabulary attached to it, and I have no idea about it.” Even the company’s lead dancer, Gino Grenek, says that being offered the main role in RainForest is either the greatest gift of his career or a “Why are you doing it to me?” ordeal. The dancers’ anxiety also stems from the clash between Petronio and Cunningham’s approaches. Petronio preaches a “kinetic flow” style that project “conscious energy into space,” while Cunningham had a basic aesthetic that Petronio likens to photography, where the dancer is always in control.

From If the Dancer Dances (courtesy Monument Releasing)

If the Dancer Dances is reminiscent of witnessing a philologist or literary translator at play, trying to get into the mindset of someone who works in a different language. There is a debate between using “classical” choreographic notation versus demonstrating the choreography to new dancers and having them rely on muscle memory. The complexity of Cunningham’s style is dissected too. He extolled the independence of dance and music, but in order to perform his work in the “right” way, one needs to be a “musical dancer” anyway. “I can’t really connect to any wild quality of this dance,” says one member of the company. “But you have to” is the response.

The audience may feel the same frustration. Lay viewers will struggle to understand how the Stephen Petronio dancers are supposedly falling short, while those with knowledge of dance will identify with the chasm between movement per se and movement executed according to a specific vision. But there are aha moments where we can feel their triumphs. One dancer has a breakthrough after being told to move as if she’s underwater. During tech rehearsals, the performers are instructed to give RainForest room to breathe. “Otherwise, it becomes a museum piece.”

If the Dancer Dances focuses on action over character, sometimes to its detriment. I would have loved to see more of Stephen Petronio. Instead he’s “passed the mic” to the choreography and process, allowing the work to speak for itself. Words aren’t always enough to untangle the complexity of choreography, but the documentary does an excellent job of showing how to critically approach the interpretation (and reinterpretation) of art.

From If the Dancer Dances (courtesy Monument Releasing)

If the Dancer Dances is in theaters now.

Angelica Frey is a writer, editor, and translator living in Brooklyn. Originally from Milan, she writes about the arts, culture, food, and fashion.