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Cunningham on the big screen

Posted on March 16, 2020


Making dances is a mysterious process that’s difficult to describe. Recreating a dance’s essential character and original impact is still harder. The works Merce Cunningham left behind when he died in 2009 must now make their own way in the world, without his help but assisted by the dancers who know them and by the meticulously assembled records of their existence.

A fascinating combination of archive film, still images, voiceovers and 3D performance, Alla Kovgan’s ambitious documentary Cunningham wisely doesn’t try to explain his creative process or to cover his entire life, career and contribution to contemporary dance. Part biopic, part appreciation, it examines artistic enterprise from three perspectives. Linked by the chronology of his choreographic development from 1942 to 1972, they struck me as three discrete films, piled on top of one another but still distinct.

The most significant of the three draws a riveting portrait of Cunningham’s early explorations in movement and of the individuals who cast their lot with him. Black and white film and snapshots, often accompanied by the voices of the artists we’re watching, enliven history as well as capturing Cunningham’s unique skill and presence, which dominated and guided his performers while they defined themselves. Old footage and interviews provide immediate access to Cunningham and the dancers in class and rehearsal and on the road, John Cage at the piano, Robert Rauschenberg at work.

Intercut with those intimate glimpses of the past, the second film delivers excerpts of the works under discussion performed by today’s dancers, in 3D and in colour. How times have changed and changed the dances. In the archived film, you see Cunningham draw movement from his own impulses. Reproducing it, the dancers reveal the mechanics of the choreography, deploying their polished technique impersonally. Their predecessors’ comments attest to the stylistic difference. “He was interested in our flaws as dancers,” recalls Viola Farber. “We were more individual,” says Carolyn Brown, but later he could “support more dancers, who function as a group that he organises.”

Precisely realised, these revivals shine with invention and the performers never put a foot wrong, but I found the 3D experience disorienting. Unlike the human eye, which simultaneously coordinates your perception of shape, depth and distance, the 3D system can only bring several objects into three-dimensional focus at one time, which enhances shape but flattens space and distance. Scanning midtown Manhattan from the air, the camera isolates individual buildings, in the foreground, from their natural surroundings. The dancers suffer the same fate; sharply arrayed on separate planes of the space they inhabit together, their bodies resemble cardboard cutouts, and an arm pointing downstage seems longer than the one pointing upstage.

Nevertheless, they show us dances, or at least segments of them, that many people will never have seen before: the solo Lavish Escapade (1956), “vaudeville scenes” from Antic Meet (1958), the glowing Summerspace (1958) and the bleak Winterbranch (1964). Filmed in unusual settings – a tiled tunnel, a formal garden, a mansion – certain excerpts acquire an interpretive gloss that might surprise Cunningham. The wildly varied locations he chose for Events, both interiors and exteriors, always guaranteed unobstructed sightlines for the viewers, and the film records his belief that “My dancers and I don’t interpret something, we present something. Any kind of interpretation is left up to the audience.” Imposing those interpretations herself, Kovgan filmed Winterbranch on a rooftop in darkness broken by roving searchlights, and sliced up Antic Meet behind regularly spaced double doors – now you see it, now you don’t.

The third film tells us more about Kovgan than about Cunningham. All we learn about dances filmed from the forest floor or from directly overhead is that she wanted to show them from those perspectives. Layering photographs, moving images and words scrawled across the screen as we hear them pulls our attention to the layering rather than the content. The much-heralded “immersive” use of 3D photography actually distorts the choreography, and anyway, as Mark Morris has said, “We already live in 3D.”

Yet her imaginative editing and tenacious research illuminate Cunningham’s life and times, which represents her film’s greatest achievement. The artists’ eloquence in movement and words document her elusive subject memorably, as does the singularly articulate choreographer himself. Why experiment with dances? Because, he says, “I am really deeply fond of dancing.” What sustains their invention? A “continuous belief in the surprise of the instant.” Everyone who cares about creativity, risk and dedicated effort will want to see this film.

Pictured: Scenes from Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace (photographs by Mko Malkshasyan) and Suite for Two (photographs by Martin Miseré).

Cunningham will be shown in 2D and 3D in cinemas across the UK and Ireland from March 13. Visit for more information.

Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at

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