Merce Cunningham died in 2009 at the age of 90, and in his decades-long career as a dancer and choreographer, he redefined American modern dance as we know it. Fond of reminding his dancers, audiences and the media that he wasn’t designing the movements but rather allowing them to be revealed, Cunningham broke the mold of what the performing arts understood dance to be, from the way his work unfolded to the way he ran his eponymous dance company.
Alla Kovgan’s captivating new documentary—fittingly titled Cunningham—explores the artist’s work, life and lasting legacy in a film that blends the past and the present in beautifully inventive ways. In order to demonstrate just how evocative his choreography was and remains, Kovgan features numerous scenes of Cunningham’s numbers performed today, the movements and motions of present-day dancers just as exceptional as they were originally. We know this, of course, because the original performances are shared alongside the new ones, providing an elusive sense of continuity to otherwise elusive live performances. Though screened for this review in basic 2D, the film is opening theatrically in 3D in select markets, and one imagines the gimmick only bolsters those scenes where the dancers are in full, vibrant performance, perhaps the best use of the format in recent memory.
Kovgan’s generous use of Cunningham’s own words to explore his life and career make the scenes between the performances just as intriguing, with creative depictions of his writing (mostly personal letters, offering an intimate glimpse into his personal life) across the screen and archival photos and footage to take us back to his most creative years. And Cunningham was, at his core, a creative, as everything around him was fodder for his next project, whatever it may be. Only a true visionary, an artist with seemingly limitless potential for creation, could see the world the way Cunningham did. Even his long-running dance troupe was itself a sort of work of art, eschewing the traditional structures of the time—theatre-based companies, with principal dancers and large ensembles—in favor of a more communal approach. There were no leaders, no real plan to the thing, and the group toured to perform their numbers, rather than set up at a single theater in New York or L.A. or the like. It all goes to Cunningham’s enviable ability to live outside the lines in ways those of us with less creative pursuits could never quite get away with.
Interviews with those who danced with Cunningham and knew him best give the film a necessary level of credibility, as they recall what it was like to be on tour with him or how a particular piece came together. But these conversations, interesting as they are, pale in comparison to the heart the film, the dance sequences that Kovgan rightly situates at the center of a film about one of the art form’s most influential creators. Intertwined as they are with the biographical content that expands on Cunningham’s long life, the combination becomes something so dazzling as to not to be missed.