NYU Gallatin’s Lise Friedman explains why The Nutcracker has so many fans—and asks them to give modern dance a chance, too.

’Tis the season, and once more, people will be flocking to productions of The Nutcracker, the 127-year-old two-act ballet that never seems to get old. But for many, the show may be the only live dance performance they will ever see.

In an effort to stoke public interest in the art form, NYU Gallatin faculty member Lise Friedman—a former performer with the renowned Merce Cunningham Dance Company—co-produced the 2018 documentary If the Dancer Dances, which was just released for streaming on Amazon Prime, iTunes, and Vimeo on Demand.

The film takes viewers behind the scenes with New York’s Stephen Petronio Dance Company as three members of the former Merce Cunningham Company Dance Company teach RainForest, one of Cunningham’s monumental works. The magic—and the challenge—of dance is that it’s ephemeral, and Friedman’s character-driven doc shows the inherent difficulties of restaging a piece with artists encountering a choreographer’s work for the first time.

Friedman has written several books on dance, including Becoming a Ballerina: A Nutcracker Story, an imagined tale of a 13-year-old ballerina’s encounter with the most enduring dance production known. NYU News spoke to her about the appeal of different styles, and how only performers can pass down the nuances of each work.

What was it about the Nutcracker and RainForest that inspired you to examine them in a book and a film?

The Nutcracker is, of course, a staple of many ballet companies, and frequently a vital source of revenue. It’s really a wonderful introduction to dance. There’s something for everyone, including, ideally, stellar dancing and live music that sets a high bar. And it comes fully loaded: a wonderful story—thank you, E.T.A. Hoffmann—brought to life by great characters… Clara, Drosselmeyer, the Mouse King, the Sugarplum Fairy, to name just a few. There are obviously many versions of this ballet; it can be an all-out extravaganza or something relatively modest. In comparison, Merce Cunningham’s work is more rarified. It may be less “accessible” to the uninitiated, but once experienced, it sets a new bar for invention on every level. RainForest is, of course, iconic. The choreography is gorgeous, the Andy Warhol set is beautiful and intensely evocative, Jasper Johns’ costumes raw and sensual, and the electronic-music score by David Tudor is full of atmosphere and mystery.

Dancers

From the film "If the Dancer Dances"

Maia Wechsler and Lise Friedman

Maia Wechsler and Lise Friedman (Photo By ©Shonna Valeska)

Regardless of complexity, the power of dance is difficult to transmute from one generation to another—as your documentary shows. As Petronio says, “It comes out of the body, it goes into the air, and then it disappears.” So how do these shows endure?

All choreography needs to be performed to stay alive. And with Merce’s work, there’s an urgency attached to this, because he is no longer with us. Dancers who have performed the work must be the ones to restage it—and currently, this means dancers who were in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The process of transmission, from body to body, is the ideal way for this to occur. It ensures quality and nuance along with steps and phrases and spacing and timing.

Far easier to say than to do, I imagine?

Learning a new technique and new choreography is a process that takes time. The Petronio dancers are all masters of Stephen’s work. They move with astonishing speed and velocity and specificity. When they confronted Merce’s work, they had to absorb a new way of moving; it was unfamiliar to most of them. The process of watching them learn the piece, and make it their own, was truly inspiring. They were fearless in their approach and not afraid of being awkward. 

For those who want to expand their horizons, can you recommend some New York City dance performances to see in the coming weeks?

Why yes, here are just a few: Streb Extreme Action, through Dec. 16 at STREB dance studio; and Pam Tanowitz + Simone Dinnerstein through Dec. 15 at the Joyce.  And if you happen to be looking for an outstanding production of The Nutcracker, keep in mind the New York City Ballet production at Lincoln Center, through January 5th.