MOVIE REVIEW: Cunningham

In my time as someone who writes about movies, I’ve watched a fair few documentaries (or at least more than I would have ever seen in theaters), and written about them for this site. For the most part, I’ve approached documentary films as first an opportunity to learn about the subject matter, and secondly as art objects in their own right. If I learned something new, then great!—and then, onto whether I thought that new thing was presented creatively. So of all the documentary films I’ve reviewed, Alla Kovgan’s Cunningham best exhibits the inherent tension between these two objectives of documentary filmmaking. It’s essentially a showcase of several of the late, great modern dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham’s most famous compositions, presented in evocative new settings and calibrated for 3-D viewing.
If you come to Cunningham knowing very little about modern dance, at times the movement comes across as the inspiration of bad parodies of modern dance—brightly colored unitards with occasional knitted elements, the long, graceful walking to discordant music with somber expressions mixed with occasional odd flailing movements—but you’ll likely appreciate the formal risks Kovgan and her crew have taken in staging these works. (I don’t like seeing movies in 3-D, but Cunningham looks incredibly awkward in 2-D—the space looks flattened, with the dancers looking almost rotoscoped against the backdrop at times.)

Watching Cunningham, the part of me that is interested in pushing the boundaries of documentary filmmaking beyond the usual didactic combination of archival footage and talking heads commentary is in conflict with the part of me that has an extensive background in dance and choreography. As a discrete artistic object and statement, Cunningham is extremely creative in how it balances contemporary reinterpretations of these dance compositions with the decision to only use real-time archival interview audio and video from Cunningham, John Cage, and others in his orbit as narration and/or commentary. In terms of telling us just who Merce Cunningham was and why he matters, there’s no contemporary performance studies scholar sitting in a chair talking about the past and placing Cunningham into a larger narrative of dance history—simply the contemporaneous archival video, photo, and audio Kovgan has decided to embed into the film, along with text from correspondence between Cunningham and Cage that gets at the warmth of their partnership and relationship. Robert Rauschenberg also drops in, as the designer of sets and costumes for some of Cunningham’s early pieces before he hit it big as a painter.

At times, there’s a curious disconnect between these roundabout ways we learn about Merce Cunningham, the man, and the development of his idiosyncratic dance and choreography techniques, and the fluidity with which the actual restagings of his works are presented. I don’t know if I could, after watching Cunningham, tell you much biographical information about him—but education doesn’t really seem to be the point of the film. It’s more about establishing a rhythm and sequence: here will be a segment consisting of archival material, then a restaging of the particular dance mentioned in the material, and on and on, all in chronological order.
It is as a former dancer and choreographer that I express my frustration with Cunningham’s total devotion to cinematic, rather than theatrical, principles. Kovgan, working with former Cunningham company members and administrators Robert Swinston and Jennifer Goggans, moves Cunningham’s dance compositions from the stage, plopping them into a variety of indoor and outdoor settings with varying degrees of payoff.  “Crises” (1960) is placed in a dimly-lit interior with wood floors and intricately-carved screen doors, giving the volatile interactions between the male and female couple a sensual feel. The freshness of “Summerspace,” Cunningham’s famous 1958 collaboration with Rauschenberg and composer Morton Feldman, keeps the pointillist costumes and backdrop but transports the movement into its own little colorful bubble.

Unfortunately, in nearly all cases, the way these dances are filmed makes it nearly impossible to track the progression of the dance itself. The camera moves constantly, often following the path of one or two dancers at a time, which does not recreate how an audience would have seen these works performed. If it’s off-camera and you can’t hear it, it may as well not exist for the viewer. So to have dancers continually filtering in and out of the shot is disorienting—does being off-camera equate to being off-stage? So much of appreciating choreography is seeing it all come together—how disparate bodies are arranged in clusters or formations that relate to one another, creating a tableau for the audience, and the way these dances are filmed robs the viewer of that satisfying pleasure.

This cinematic choice can, perhaps, be explained as wanting to get into the head of Cunningham himself by approximating a dancer’s eye view at times, since Cunningham performed his own choreography, but the decision to stage some of these works across multiple locations, with only the editing process to stitch them together, is genuinely frustrating. I don’t want to only see the dancers transported from one eye-catching setting to another, as in “Scene for Two” (1958), which here begins in a beautiful garden, crossfades to the same dancers continuing in an indoor space, only to conclude once again in the same garden, all as John Cage’s music continues to play. I want to know how those passages are linked, how the movements transition from one to another as performed in real time. At times, my frustration with how the dance is filmed distracted me from really watching the dance itself.

If there is a sense of heightened grandeur in how these dances are presented—and in 3-D, no less!—it’s the kind accompanying a sad swan song. Cunningham passed away in 2009; two years later, his famed company disbanded. The dancers and choreographers who worked on Cunningham, sadly, all have the word “former” in their titles.