The centenary of choreographer Merce Cunningham’s birth has brought commemorations and performances of his work from the U.S. to Europe and Australia. At a symposium in London in March, Oxford University professor Susan Jones noted his “radical dance aesthetic” and “deconstruction of stage space.” And scholar Hélène Neveu Kringelbach observed, “Cunningham is perhaps the choreographer who forces us most to rethink what dance is and is not.”
As the end of the year approaches a new tribute to Merce is coming in the form of the documentary Cunningham, directed by Alla Kovgan. The film, shot in 3D, opens in theaters December 13 and has qualified for Oscar consideration as Best Documentary Feature. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and was shortlisted for the IDA Documentary Awards.
“[Cunningham] was a revolutionary figure in the 20th century, and I do think his legacy extends in the 21st century,” Kovgan tells Deadline. “He continues to influence so many artists and audiences around the world.”
The film explores the ideas that made Cunningham such a revolutionary figure in dance, including his radical approach to music. In classical ballet, dance served as a kind of accompaniment or ornamental illustration of music. Cunningham pioneered a new idea, often in collaboration with avant-garde composer John Cage, who was also his life partner.
“Cage and Cunningham decided to sort of liberate dance from dependency on music. Merce always had that [idea that] dance has to stand on its own legs rather than on the music,” Kovgan explains. “There’s this one piece called ‘Septet’ in the film and actually the piece was made to Erik Satie music, but the dancers never danced to the beat. And all musicians went crazy at the time saying, ‘Oh my god, that’s absolutely impossible. It’s impossible to make dances like that.’”
Cunningham once wrote of his conceptual notions, “[T]he dance is free to act as it chooses, as is the music. The music doesn’t have to work itself to death to underline the dance, or the dance create havoc in trying to be as flashy as the music.”
The choreographer was similarly radical with his use of space. As his official website notes, “Moving beyond the conventions of the proscenium, Cunningham gave equal importance to any position on the stage.”
“Cunningham himself said that he was very taken by Einstein’s idea that there were no fixed points in space,” Dr. Arabella Stanger noted at the London symposium. “He…reflected, well, if that’s true, then it means every point in space is equally interesting and every point in space is always shifting and always moving.”
Cunningham built ‘chance procedures’ into his choreographic method, another radical notion.
“Merce would make a gamut of movement and then throw dice or use I-CHING or any other method to determine the order of movement phrases, the direction, dancers doing them, and so on,” Kovgan notes. “Merce used chance to free his mind from habits, preconceptions and cliches of his own mind.”
To achieve his artistic vision, Cunningham needed a particular kind of dancer, one with the capacity to release energy throughout the body.
“At the beginning he was never satisfied with the dancers’ training, the people that he had to work with,” Kovgan comments. “So he decided to, in a way, invent a new dancer. Which meant that a dancer would have very strong legs like ballet legs and a very, very, flexible torso. So, that’s how he designed his technique.”
Kovgan’s film focuses on a three-decade span of Cunningham’s career, from 1942-1972. She made elaborate stagings of portions of 14 dances from across that period, “reimagined in 3D cinema…If it’s a dance based on an action of falling, like ‘Winterbranch,’ okay, I would think about Hitchcock. I would think about all these different, amazing films and how would we translate that idea into cinema of falling.”
The director contended with a mountain of creative and logistical challenges.
“It required incredible, crazy storyboarding,” Kovgan recalls. “We had to storyboard everything because this film was shot in just 18 days.”
Cunningham died in 2009 at age 90. Kovgan was granted access to his archives to make her film and incorporated material that has never been seen before.
“We made quite a few discoveries” both in the Cunningham archive and in repositories around the world, Kovgan reveals. “We found footage of Merce dancing ‘Changeling.’ Now this dance was lost for 50 years…One of the treasures are these massive audio recordings when he was sitting in a hotel room just sort of recording his…very personal, private moments, sharing with us his ideas about dance.”
Kovgan says she’s pleased her film was finished in time to coincide with the Cunningham centenary.
“Maybe that’s the reason why this film’s took many years, like seven years,” to complete, she muses. “I think not a coincidence; synchronicity, I would say.”
She hopes Cunningham will appeal to all audiences.
“I don’t think you need to know who Merce was to watch the film,” Kovgan maintains. “I think anybody can find something there for themselves, and appreciate his work or him or the man.”
She adds, “We showed it to 12-year-olds and they actually were very excited…That was quite amazing to see their eyes after they left the theater, and the questions they were bubbling with. So I really hope that it actually crosses over. I never want to make a film for sort of the artistic elites, because I actually think that although Merce and his collaborators belong to the artistic elite, they were not elitist. What they really wanted was to touch and resonate with anybody who was willing to give it a chance.”