'Cunningham': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Merce Cunningham's 'Summerspace' performed in 'Cunningham'
A knockout.

The groundbreaking choreographer Merce Cunningham is celebrated in a 3D documentary that combines archival footage and newly staged performances of 14 of his landmark works.

Following in the footsteps of another great dance documentary, Wim Wenders' 2011 Pina, Alla Kovgan's first feature-length film uses 3D to thrilling effect. Cunningham is no academic explanation of a modern master's oeuvre; in keeping with the credo and spirit of its visionary subject, it's an experience. "We don't interpret something," Merce Cunningham said of his hardworking troupe. "We do something." 

What Kovgan's utterly transporting film does, through a thoughtful and dynamic combination of curated material and new performances, is radiate the rapturous power of dance. It embodies the daring of a man who, though he eschewed the "avant-garde" label, was nonetheless a peerless innovator who took an art form to places it had never before gone.

There are no talking heads offering analysis; the only voices heard in Cunningham are those of the choreographer himself, several of the founding members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and fellow artists who collaborated in his life's work (he hadn't retired when he died at 90 in 2009). They include composer John Cage, Cunningham's life partner; the painter Robert Rauschenberg; and Andy Warhol. The photographs, audio recordings and footage of interviews and rehearsals that director-editor Kovgan has selected become 2D elements in a rich, intricate collage.

Concentrating on the first 30 years of a career that would be monumentally influential, she crafts an organic chronology as opposed to a literal timeline (conversations included in the film, for example, make no mention of Black Mountain College, a crucial chapter in Cunningham's development). The director fluidly interweaves the archival material — some of it never seen publicly until now — with inspired reimaginings of pieces that debuted between 1942 and 1972. These new stagings, created for the film under the guidance of Robert Swinston and Jennifer Goggans, themselves veterans of Cunningham's company, are performed by the last generation of the troupe, bringing this unconventional and unexpectedly moving portrait full circle.

The use of 3D lends an immediacy to the dances and highlights the dancers' physicality — the muscled weight of their bodies, but also their gravity-defying pliancy and lightness. The dozen-plus settings are striking for their variety as well as their visual impact: a New York rooftop, an empty auditorium, a park bursting with sunlight and birdsong. Cinematographer Mko Malkhasyan employs occasional overhead shots that emphasize the geometry of group dances, and the evocative sound design ensures that the thump of bare feet on wooden planks makes no less of an impact than street noises or wailing sirens.

With Cage and Rauschenberg, Cunningham was in the forefront of a postwar cultural renaissance, something the film effortlessly makes clear through letters and conversations. Without overstating the matter, Kovgan lets you feel the excitement of the cross-pollination among like artistic spirits, across different disciplines — creators who were, according to Rauschenberg, bound only by "our ideas and our poverty." 

Before his abrupt but not unpredicted departure to follow his own rising star, Rauschenberg created costumes and sets for Cunningham's dances, notably his pointillist backdrop for the 1958 piece Summerspace, a work that "puzzled" its first audience, according to one observer. It dazzles here, all the more stunning for the way Kovgan inserts black-and-white pics of the original production against the pastel profusion of the present-day set. She also gives us an over-the-moon Warhol enthusing over the silver Mylar pillows he designed to float and bounce through 1968's RainForest (whose costumes were created by another art-world giant, Jasper Johns, still working today at 89). 

The film shines a poignant light on the resilience and fortitude required of Cunningham and his troupe in the early years, when they crisscrossed the country in a VW microbus, earning little money and often leaving unattuned audiences nonplussed — Parisians, later, would throw tomatoes — while slowly building a following. Whimsical sketches from Cunningham's book Other Animals prove exceptionally apt in this section, an eloquent expression of what it means to be creating a new language, outside the borders of the workaday world.

When the tide turned with a triumphant 1964 world tour, Cage mischievously noted that the laudatory headlines and ovations "ruined our reputations." Footage of a beaming Cunningham taking his curtain call speaks volumes. In a different key, so too does another image, showcased here at a point when dancers had left the fold and Cunningham said he felt more like a "bystander" than a "patriarch": Performing onstage, he leans into an impossibly elongated stretch, proffering an ignored bouquet.

"I'm a dancer," was his deceptively simple self-description. Cunningham shows us why other adventurous dancers awoke to his "animal authority and human passion," as founding troupe member Carolyn Brown put it. Kovgan explores not just the depth of Merce Cunningham's talent but the breadth of his vision. Decades after his dances were first imagined and painstakingly made real, the film's new renditions pulse with life. From the haunting starkness of Winterbranch to the vibrancy of Second Hand, which glimmers like a stained-glass illustration brought to life, they're immersive, visceral experiences. That was Cunningham's goal, and as you remove the 3D glasses and exit the theater, you know that you've been somewhere well beyond the workaday world.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Documentaries)
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Production companies: Achtung Panda! Media, Arsam International, Chance Operations in association with Dogwoof
Screenwriter-director: Alla Kovgan
Producers: Helge Albers, Ilann Girard, Alla Kovgan, Elizabeth Delude-Dix, Kelly Gilpatrick, Derrick Tseng
Executive producers: Stephanie Dillon, Anna Godas, Oli Harbottle,Lyda E. Kuth, Andreas Roald
Director of photography: Mko Malkhasyan
Supervising director of choreography: Robert Swinston
Director of choreography: Jennifer Goggans
Director of stereography: Joséphine Derobe
Archival sequences designer: Mieke Ulfig
Costume designer: Jeffrey Wirsing
Editor: Alla Kovgan
Composer: Volker Bertelmann (Hauschka)
3D supervisor: Sergio Ochoa
International sales: Dogwoof

93 minutes