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The iconic Merce Cunningham and the last generation of his dance company is profiled in Alla Kovgan's documentary Cunningham.

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

  • Cunningham
  • Written and directed by Alla Kovgan
  • Classification PG
  • 93 minutes

rating

“You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive,” Merce Cunningham once said. This comment from the late choreographer, whose collaborations with composer John Cage, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns (and later, Radiohead, Brian Eno, and Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo) cemented his position in the New York avant grade, cuts to the heart of why a new documentary about the artist needs to exist. For how does one capture dance on screen, in a way that honours the transcendental nature of its creation? To quote the steadfast Cunningham again: “The only way to do it is to do it.”

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Alla Kovgan’s documentary Cunningham doesn’t always work as a portrait of its enigmatic subject, who tended to play down his success in favour of letting his work speak for itself, but when it does, your jaw drops. The film is mainly a straightforward biography of the self-made dancer and choreographer, based on archival material and a few on-camera interviews with his past collaborators, focusing on a prolific period of his career from 1942 to 1972 (Cunningham continued to dance and make work until his death at the age of 90 in 2009). But interspersed throughout are 14 wonderful cinematic re-enactments of Cunningham’s most iconic pieces in deep three-dimensional space, picking up where Wim Wenders’s similarly immersive 3-D dance film Pina left off in 2011. These performances are the main reason to watch Cunningham in a theatre and are utterly thrilling.

Filmmakers often turn to 3-D when trying to articulate something about the ineffability of art. Werner Herzog first tried this in his 2010 documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, attempting to situate the viewer inside paintings that were drawn more than 32,000 years ago, claiming, “They were locked in history and we are not.” In Pina, a portrait of the late choreographer Pina Bausch, Wenders got up close and personal with a troupe of dancers in Bausch’s company, expressing the human drama and longing of her work with his keen cinematic eye.

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The film's experimental performance-staging includes such settings as a forest floor.

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Kovgan’s gaze on Cunningham is different, recalling the immersive deep space of virtual reality. She doesn’t so much investigate a dance cinematically as stage it for our own wide-eyed gaze, as a diverse troupe of ever-changing performers enacts Cunningham’s precise, angular movements everywhere from a subway tunnel in Hamburg to a forest floor to a New York rooftop. Gone is the proscenium-like staging of contemporary dance, in favour of something wilder and more experimental; Kovgan wants to get inside a dance instead of merely presenting it. At her best, such as in an innovative staging of Cunningham’s Summerspace, replete with a pointillist backdrop once designed by Robert Rauschenberg, the hallucinatory explosions of colour and movement build to a fever pitch, evoking The Red Shoes.

Sometimes in Cunningham’s work, one person’s limbs become a bow and arrow, drawing toward a performer’s heart. In another piece, a dancer undergoes a duet with a chair strapped to their back, pausing occasionally to let their partner take a seat as they sit on bended knee. In a stirring cinematic rendition of Cunningham’s 1968 RainForest, dancers move frenetically in a dark room adorned with Warhol’s silver Mylar pillows, occasionally knocking one into the sky with an errant kick or a twirl. The room thrums with the noise of a rain forest at night, and the delight of seeing a pillow sent airborne by a dancer’s movement stirs something primal in the viewer, maybe even one’s own childhood fascination with art. These playful works are endlessly surprising, showing a depth and dimension that will give even casual fans of dance a new appreciation for how Cunningham emboldened and transcended his own art form. It’s a shame that the documentary itself doesn’t turn that same sense of fascination onto the man himself.

The thrilling performances are the main reason to watch Cunningham in a theatre.

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Who was Merce Cunningham? He led a largely private life, channelling his inner desires into his work. His partner for more than 30 years, both romantically and professionally, was the equally enigmatic John Cage, yet the documentary refuses to go into detail about their partnership, although you’ll hear archival recordings of their letters to each other that merely hint at what must’ve been a passionate, challenging romance. (If you’re interested in finding out more, an anthology of the selected letters of Cage was published in 2016. One can only imagine what another filmmaker would’ve made out of lines such as, “Pardon the intrusion: but when in September will you be back? I would like to measure my breath in relation to the air between us,” as Cage once wrote to Cunningham.)

Cunningham insinuates the painful, obsessive toll it takes to make your life your art, beginning with Cunningham’s description of the spartan New York apartment he inhabited in the early forties, heated with wood he found on the street. Dedicating his life to a roving troupe of performers he worked with over decades, even driving around the country with them in a camper van on tour, Cunningham had his passions inflamed chiefly by creation, living in obscurity and poverty for the first two decades of his career. If we are to take Cunningham at his word, and the joys of dance really are ephemeral, Cunningham makes a compelling case for the doing of it, over and over again.

Cunningham opens Jan. 10 in Toronto and Vancouver, and Jan. 17 in Montreal.

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