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Notes on Cunningham from a Critic and Dance Lover

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Notes on Cunningham from a Critic and Dance Lover


A scene from Cunningham, a Magnolia Pictures release, dir. Alla Kovgan, © Mko Malkshasyan, (all images courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

Cunningham is a lush documentary about the legendary choreographer, shot in 3D and overflowing with cinematic bells and whistles. I’ve watched and studied danced for nearly my whole life; I understand well the ways in which it can be inscrutable as much as transcendent. Such is the case with Cunningham: at moments, as in the gorgeous restaging of Merce Cunningham’s 1958 Summerspace, which features a pointilist set designed by Robert Rauschenberg, it’s a glimmering gem. More often than not, it’s a master class in frustration that reveals how little dance is understood as an art form, and the pitfalls of trying to represent it. Herewith, 8 notes on showing and thinking about dance:

1) Dance is difficult to film

It’s also difficult to notate, write about, and otherwise represent. More than other mediums, it’s ephemeral and immediate and raw, tied very much to the moment of performance. What can feel like magic live often loses something critical in the translation to film. 

2) Dance is in chronic poverty

Cunningham joked that all he, John Cage, and their collaborator Robert Rauschenberg had in common was “our poverty and our ideas.” An opportunity to spend real money on it is rarer than rubies, and dancers often spend tremendous amounts of money on training and rehearsal space for usually meager compensation. Do not make a film about filming dance. Make a film about dance

Merce Cunningham in Cunningham, a Magnolia Pictures release, © Robert Rutledge

3) Bodies are as smart as minds. 

Dance, to paraphrase George Balanchine, is not a physical but a moral undertaking. Through an aestheticized physical vocabulary, it refracts a vision of the world. To responsibly describe a dance, you must first understand the worldview that made it. In Cunningham’s case, it was spare, elegant, devoid of editorializing affect; it was serious, never gaudy. In Cunningham we often get gaudy, rarely serious. We see the money, less the choreography.

4) Study the dance you are showing

Cunningham was a voluble speaker and an elegant writer.  Take a Cunningham technique dance class, if you are able to, to learn it through your own body; this is the dance equivalent of being in a room with an artwork, rather than looking at it on a computer screen, as is now so often the case. In the film, Cunningham is shown describing his technique as a modern-dance torso on top of ballet legs. His framing is pithy and clear, but there are other elements that render his style striking, and it’s the job of scholars and dance historians to articulate these and of documentarians to visualize them. 

In Cunningham’s choreography, strikingly curved spines and spiraling torsos evince the emotional expressiveness of Martha Graham’s legacy. Legs are frequently turned out and feet stretched and pointed like ballet dancers’. To these recognizable physical vocabularies Cunningham added startling weight shifts and surprising directional changes, creating a sense of staggering physical awareness edging into pure aesthetics. It provides the body the potential to move artfully, intentionally, in any direction at any moment. Cunningham’s work had a deep philosophical relationship to time. Setting dances by stopwatch was not a neat physical trick, as it’s portrayed in the film — it was a visionary reimagining of the body.

The original Merce Cunningham Dance Company in a scene from Cunningham, a Magnolia Pictures release, © Robert Rutledge

Alla Kovgan, the filmmaker, has done extensive research on Cunningham and holds his work in high regard. But I wouldn’t know it from how infrequently the film lingers on the details of the body; it rarely highlights the ways in which he restructured and reoriented its movements so the impossible became seemingly effortless, impossibly modern.

5) Take collaboration seriously

Cunningham’s partner in life and art was John Cage, one of the great musical minds of the 20th century. Cage appears in the film, wry yet warm, like Cunningham himself, with his oft-quoted aphorism, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.” But Cage was also a sophisticated music theorist, a refined philosopher, and an unrivaled innovator. His grindings and silences were not one-off provcations but rigorous explorations of the nature of sound and music. In the film there’s a brief nod to the choreographic philosophy of separating the music from the dance. What does this imply about the close connection between music and dance? How was this relationship different from others formed amid the hotbed of creative activity that also sprouted Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown? Rauschenberg is there, until he isn’t. How did they work together? Why? The film answers none of these questions. 

A scene from Cunningham, a Magnolia Pictures release, © Mko Malkshasyan

6) Emphasize the structure of the dance, not the medium of the film.

There’s a beautiful duet, set at the edge of a pond. We get some shining seconds of what makes watching dance so special — the way the dancers’ breath expands their ribs, the absolute marvel of their bodies situated in this way, moving in sequence — before the camera pulls back for an excessive lingering shot of the surface of the pond. The dancers fall out of focus and then entirely, unbelievably out of view. The wonder of water shot in 3D became the subject and we lost the dance. 

7) Trust the movement/show the movement

Cunningham doesn’t require split screens or 3D or dramatic lighting. His concern was the body and the art it made. The subtleties of a flicked wrist here, an impossibly undulating bicep there, a wiggling toe that is grave and silly in equal measure — these are lost in this baroque production. The film features an extraordinary group of dancers restaging the choreographer’s work in the present alongside an extraordinary gathering of archival content made at the time. Too often, the cinematic flourishes make it impossible to see either.

A scene from Cunningham, a Magnolia Pictures release, © Martin Miseré

8) Understand the duty of history. 

The memory of dance lives mostly in the bodies of dancers. Talk more with people who were there, and not just about Merce’s personality or their feelings but about the choreography itself. What does it feel like to learn that technique? How would you teach it? How does it sit in your body, and how does it change as you age? Many former dancers become teachers not only because of the lack of opportunities later in life, but because they are the repositories of knowledge. 

Remember always, in the words of dance historian Sally Sommer: “You are passing on this ephemeral and fragile thing that is an idea that lives only at the moment that it is performed and then it’s gone. It’s like you’re passing on air.”

Cunningham (2019), dir. Alla Kovgan opens in theaters nationwide December 13. 





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