Disclosure: Dance Dispatches received free admission to write an open and honest feature about the Cunningham film.
Merce Cunningham was a great American modern dance choreographer, whose work has been both lauded and loathed. The recent Cunningham Centennial celebration at The Guggenheim in NYC left us nostalgic about his dance company, which officially disbanded in 2011 after a two-year global farewell tour. But the 3D ‘Cunningham’ film by Dogwoof masterfully brings some of his work to life. It is currently showing in select locations across the USA, including New York City, Los Angeles and a smattering of smaller cities.
Other famous biographical dance documentaries include Pina (about Pina Bausch) and Lifting the Curtain (about Rudolf Nureyev).
The Production of Cunningham
Alla Kovagan directed Cunningham for Dogwoof, a London-based documentary film company. Although she never imagined working with Cunningham’s choreography on film, she felt that the 3D element was especially fitting to showcase his work.
“Merce and 3D represent an idea fit, not only because of his use of space but also because of his interest in every technological advancement of is time and his willingness to adapt and work in unconventional settings/locations… It became clear to me that even back in the 1950s… [Merce] had been longing to create immersive environments for his dances. Today, 3D allows for his dream to come true.”– Alla Kovagan, Cunningham Director
If you don’t know much about screendance, see our interview with Omari ‘Motion’ Carter of The Motion Dance Collective.
Cunningham Film Review
The Cunningham film covers three decades of Merce Cunningham’s prolific career from 1942 – 1972. It incorporates many different resources – from historical archival footage and images of his dancers to audio interviews, notes from his published book (Changes: Notes on Choreography) and sketches from Other Animals: Drawings and Journals.
The movie about the modern dance choreographer splits the frame during many scenes to show past and present representations of his work side by side. A still photograph is used as a wide border around a performance video; and dance excerpts are performed in a split screen, featuring footage of original company members, while present-day dancers complete the same choreography.
The 3D Cunningham film incorporates nearly 30 of Merce’s works from his repertoire of hundreds of pieces. In a way at is somewhat merciful, since the documentary doesn’t challenge the audience to immerse themselves in longer works – like the actual live shows did. (Many of Cunningham’s pieces easily surpassed 20 minutes, some topping an hour.)
Rather than deep diving into Cunningham’s choreographic processes, the 90-minute documentary focuses on Cunningham and his relationship with his dancers. The original tightknit company toured around the USA in a bus, playing games and picnicking between shows. The dancers’ room and board were covered, and they received a fee of $25 for each performance – which amounts to more than $300 today, but many rehearsals were required to prepare for each performance.
Cunningham’s closest artistic collaborators were also featured: musician John Cage and painter Robert Rauschenberg. His close affinity with some artists in other fields, including Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, led him to believe that artists were simply more receptive of his dance than other audience members, many of whom left his shows baffled or frustrated.
Want more modern dance on the silver screen?
Try The Pigeon & The Mouse movie by Welcome to Campfire.
The 3D Cunningham film sets his work in gorgeous spaces and gives us glimpses into the dogged, visionary artist himself. However, distilling thirty years of Merce Cunningham’s life into an hour and a half must have been a challenge, and the documentary feels like a cursory introduction to the legendary choreographer. Still, a sequel covering Cunningham’s later years would be most welcome.
If you saw the Cunningham film, do you feel that the 3D element added to the experience? And what was your favorite piece to view? Let us know in the comments below!