“CUNNINGHAM”— A Dancer’s Story


A Dancer’s Story

Amos Lassen

Alla Kovgan’s documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham seems to be taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and the film lets dancing tell his story.

Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan mixes biography and art. The often scratchy-looking archival footage gives context for the milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors.

The film is both ascetic and playful with Cunningham functioning as the beginning avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As we see in the archival interviews, Cunningham didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. He rejected the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance. He says that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”

In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers. There was confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion. Making even less sense is the dismissal of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless”. What is staged here by Kovgan are  sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged but they are also “lush and buoyant.”

We hear and see Cunningham say that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything— interpretation is up to the audience. There is no distancing, no narration or restrictive frame. The camera doesn’t stand back; it plunges straight into the thick of the action. Even the timeline is flexible. Kovgan – and the audience along with her – becomes more than mere observer, instead engaging directly with the work.

Putting the dance front and center , we are invited to get to know Cunningham through his art. Cunningham’s partner John Cage provides personal insights, helping us to understand the toughness it took to turn artistic vision into reality. We hear from Cunningham himself, reflecting on his relationship with his work – the fierceness he could use when needed but also his inclination to be a part of it rather than steering it. It was the art, not the man, that mattered.

Cunningham’s work is rooted in an appreciation of what a trained body can do, in expressions of physical possibility that come before aesthetic concerns. We see footage of his own dancing which combines discipline with a constant desire to explore, to test the boundaries. Even when he’s trying hard to be serious and focused, he can’t altogether hide the pleasure that he finds in his art – even in its imperfections.

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