‘I don’t describe it, I do it.’ Dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham (1919-2009) was not one for labelling. When asked if he considered himself an avant-garde choreographer or a modern one, he simply replied: ‘I am a dancer, that is sufficient.’

Where his work was concerned, he also wasn’t particularly interested in ascribing meaning to his pieces. The interpretations were all in the eye of the beholder. Likewise, the movie Cunningham by Alla Kovgan (released on 3 September) is not meant to be a step-by-step dissection of his dance works, although it does offer some interesting insights.

Kovgan focuses on roughly the first three decades of Merce Cunningham’s career, starting with his first collaboration with composer John Cage in 1942, and ending in 1972, the point where all the original founding members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company had left.

The film does delve a bit into his work method, showing how Cunningham liked to work with chance, a literal roll of the dice; how most elements of his works – music, sets, costumes – usually wouldn’t come together until the moment of the first performance. The movie also touches on the other great artistic minds Cunningham often collaborated with, like Cage, visual artist Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. They were kindred spirits, or, as Rauschenberg puts it more drily: ‘We had only two things in common: our ideas and our poverty.’

Cunningham is not meant to be a traditional biopic. The time frame of thirty years is too specific – Cunningham would remain working up until his death in 2009. There are also too many gaps in the story you either have to know beforehand, or have to fill in later yourself. For instance, you will have to discern the special relationship between Cunningham and Cage – who was both his creative and his romantic partner – for yourself, by reading between the lines in the quotes from Cage’s lovelorn letters to Cunningham.

The main focus is on the works itself. There is some archival footage, but the main part of the movie consists of restaged fragments from fourteen iconic works Cunningham made during those thirty years, shot in breathtaking 3D (in the Netherlands, the movie has been released in both a 2D and a 3D version). It’s the same technology Wim Wenders used for his eloquent rendering of Pina Bausch’s works in the documentary Pina. Kovgan even uses the same stereographer: Joséphine Derobe. While translating the pieces to cinema Kovgan could rely on two Merce Cunningham Dance Company veterans: Jennifer Goggans and Robert Swinston, who worked on the film as directors of choreography. Almost all dances are performed by former dancers of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, most of whom were still dancing for the company when it closed in 2011, two years after Cunningham’s death.

Their input really shows. The attention to detail and the love for Cunningham’s work is palpable throughout. One of the strongest decisions is not to make exact copies of the original work, but to transplant the pieces from the theatrical stage to more visually arresting venues: outside in a park, in the forest, on a rooftop, inside a sprawling classical mansion, along a futuristic looking skywalk. Sometimes the original music is used, at other times Kovgan opts for a diegetic soundscape (which Cunningham sometimes did as well): sounds of bodies moving, scraping across the floor or through the soil, birds singing, sirens wailing. It’s these moments that show Cunningham’s work at its most powerful, and most timeless.

Photo: Robert Rutledge

Cunningham The Film