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FILM REVIEW: Cunningham

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer and Director: Alla Kovgan

Dance is not the greatest of arts, there is too much low in it Merce Cunningham once said referring to the difficulties and the ugliness of feet and sweat, yet he also refused to ascribe to himself any title but dancer. Requests to describe his work and its meaning were roundly rejected with the same response, he was a doer. Celebrating the centenary of Cunningham’s birth, filmmaker Alla Kovgan has taken the same approach in exploring her subject, employing a visual flair that foregrounds the artistry of Cunningham’s chorography to challenge his own assertions about great art.

Filmed in 3D this 95-minute documentary eschews a traditional narrative structure and instead uses its chronological frame to consider the genesis and evolution of Cunningham’s techniques during its formative period. Set during the years 1944 to 1972 when Cunningham formed, what he described, as a series of informal but collaborative connections with a group of young dancers who would eventually coalesce into his first Company. The film ends almost three decades later when a new generation of performers replaced the original stars and Cunningham’s work become more widely accepted.

In the meantime, Kovgan treats the audience to a fascinating visual spectacle merging archive footage from

Image: John Lindquist

interviews and performances with striking recreations using modern dancers in unusual locations that tell the ‘story’ of Cunningham’s developing style. 3D has its detractors and while its sole purpose in recent years has been to entertain audiences by seeming to throw space debris, dinosaurs and mutant superheroes at their heads, it really comes into its own in the documentary format.

The Science Museum has long used 3D to enhance its short films about the natural world, technological development and space exploration, and Kovgan has astutely recognised its value in enlivening the dance movie by removing the artificial flatness that distances the medium from live performance. And although much of the film relies on original footage shot decades before 3D technology was available, Kovgan instead layers interview excerpts, photographs and artwork, so while Cunningham himself appears flatly before you, the shot is pulled forward from the background to create the same effect.

The narrative approach is equally interesting and rather than minutely documenting every year and personal development in Merce Cunningham’s life, Kovgan utilises the same abstract flow of his choreography to build a picture over time, one that (as he would wish) leaves the audience entirely in charge of interpreting the evidence of his approach, technique, methods and critical reception. And during the period of the film a clear understanding of his purpose emerges, the purity of his approach and its influence on modern dance.

This period was also one of wider artistic change and expression, so Kovgan also focuses on Cunningham’s collaborators; Musician John Cage developed an especially close and productive relationship with the dancer, hinting at something more personal in revealing letters earnestly hoping for them to be reunited soon; artists Robert Rauschenberg, one of the great forerunners of Pop Art developed sets and costumes himself inspired by the world of dance until his own fame leads to a sudden and hurtful exit from the Company and later Andy Warhol steps in.

Cunningham doesn’t entirely escape criticism either and while more of this aspect of his personality and working style could have been included in the film, the frustration of the female dancers is evident, troubled not only by Cunningham’s exacting and punishing teaching practice that used stopwatches to count time, but also by their passivity and lack of agency in dances he created with major solos for himself alone.

The continued relevance of Cunningham’s approaches, the fascination with balletic leg actions and more modern approaches for the torso, are recreated in Jennifer Goggins colourful homages in which groups of dancers recreate famous works including Summerspace, Rune, Rainforest, Crisis and Suite for Five all of which play with colour, sound and silence located in woods, on covered bridges, rooftops and in strange rooms. These become a little overengineered later in the film but add much to the viewer’s understanding of the impact of Cunningham’s work.

As rounded and inventive approaches to telling the story of a revered dancer and choreography go, Cunningham is a rewarding and forward-thinking experience. It may have taken a while for the world to appreciate his talents and there may be plenty of low in his work and arguably his unrelenting personality, but even if you’ve never heard of Merce Cunningham, there is as much to be taken from Kovgan’s technical approach as there is from learning about an artist who refused to be described as anything but dancer.

Release Date: 13 March 2020 

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Fascinating visual spectacle

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