‘Cunningham’ Provides Glimpse at Groundbreaking Choreographer

If you look at his pedigree, it might seem like it was only a matter of time before someone took a hard look at the life of dance pioneer Merce Cunningham and crafted a documentary about him.

After all, he lived to the ripe old age of 90, working with musicians like John Cage, Erik Satie, and Radiohead; visual artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns; architect Benedetta Tagliabue; and Comme des Garcons fashion designer Rei Kawakubo, as well as hundreds of dancers.

And he won two Guggenheim fellowships, a Kennedy Center Honors, and a MacArthur Fellowship along the way as well, creating a new dance technique.

When he died in 2009, many worried that his legacy would fall to the wayside, but Moscow-born filmmaker Alla Kovgan’s new documentary about his life, Cunningham, aims to make sure that doesn’t happen, through innovative measures that mirror aesthetic of the choreographer it’s focused on.

Kovgan marries Cunningham’s own words with personal photographs, letters, film footage and home movies of performances, rehearsals, tours, and gatherings — all in 3-D.

“I was drawn as much to the intricacies of Merce’s mind as much as I was to his tremendous talent as a dancer and choreographer,” Kovgan said. “Everything he did was new, from his approach to making his dances to the philosophies that he followed in his everyday life. I was particularly moved by his spirit. During the years, we highlight in the film, 1942-1972, he made his dances against all odds. He was always ready to place himself in unfamiliar situations and find new solutions.”

The documentarian said she was interested in Cunningham’s avid interest in film and his wholehearted embrace of new technologies.

“He allowed for his work to be documented right from the very beginning, and was open to experiments with film,” the director explained. “In the 1960s, Stan VanDerBeek, the major figure of New York avant-garde film world, spent quite a bit of time in Merce’s studio, while Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker, forefathers of cinema verité, got to film ‘RainForest’ – Merce’s collaboration with Andy Warhol and David Tudior.” 

“By the early 1970s, Merce began working with film and video himself primarily with filmmaker Charles Atlas. I had screened some of their work in St. Petersburg,” Kovgan said. “But I thought that to make a film about or with Merce’s dances would be impossible. If he has a dozen dancers going into different directions, how are you going to capture this dance? I never imagined that I would work with Cunningham choreography on screen myself.”

The 3-D film, she said, was “a great fit. I was convinced had he been alive he would have found a way to work with 3-D.”

After a flurry of research, scriptwriting, and fundraising, the film was shot in May 2018 and edited through May 2019. It opens in Dallas at the Angelika Theater on Jan. 3.

For more about the movie, as well as to purchase tickets, click here.

Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson, deputy editor at People Newspapers, cut her teeth on community journalism, starting in Arkansas. Recently, she's taken home a few awards for her writing, including a Gold award for Best Series at the 2018 National Association of Real Estate Editors journalism awards, a 2018 Hugh Aynesworth Award for Editorial Opinion from the Dallas Press Club, and a 2019 award from NAREE for a piece linking Medicaid expansion with housing insecurity. She doesn't like lima beans, black licorice or the word synergy. You can reach her at bethany.erickson@peoplenewspapers.com.

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