Monday, January 20, 2020

A timeless fellow: CUNNINGHAM, Alla Kovgan's dance doc about Merce opens in South Florida

Early on in Alla Kovgan's extraordinary documentary -- CUNNINGHAM --  about the life, times and dances of Merce Cunningham, this dancer/choreographer explains to an interviewer that his dancing "doesn't 'refer' to the music, or refer to anything at all, really. It's just dance."  Sure, but what dance it was -- and is.

Has the work of anyone else in the modern dance field aged quite so well as this man's?  Not, I think, even that of Martha Graham -- in whose company Cunningham (shown above) soloed for several years during the early 1940s. If Cunningham and his dance appeared oddball and oh-so-modern when he first exhibited it (in 1944, with his lover and music composer/collaborator, John Cage), it looks today as though it might have been only just concocted. More than merely au courant, the work seems timeless.

For those of us old enough to remember an era when screenplays and the actors who mouthed them gave us, It is I, rather than the current and incorrect It's me, hearing Cunningham speak proves an unalloyed pleasure. And filmmaker Kovgan, shown at right, lets us hear quite a lot from him.

It appears that Merce did not simply create extraordinary choreography, but he was also quite able to put into intelligent, thought-out vocabulary his ideas so that audiences and readers could better understand what he was up to. We get a lot of intelligent verbiage here -- "the surprise of the instant!" -- and it's a delight to hear Cunningham speak so very well.

Ms Kovgan gives us plenty of dance to watch, too -- both archival footage and the more current, and it is all quite wonderful. TrustMovies must admit that he is not a huge fan of dance, either ballet or modern. Yet when he is faced with either from time to time, and it is done well, he becomes, at least briefly, an aficionado. So it is here.

Watching this work, and viewing some of the lovely, subtle sets designed by artist Robert Rauschenberg to go with the Cage music and Cunningham choreography, and listening to Merce as he explains some of what went on back in the day, you will feel as much a part of things as possible in a documentary such as this one. Ms Kovgan has a gift for blending history, personality, dance, music, and art in such as way that her movie bounces merrily along.

Rauschenberg eventually stopped doing set design, but Cunningham and Cage successfully continued their collaboration (the trio is shown above: Cage, left; Cunningham, center; Rauschenberg, right). For Cunningham, the Cage connection seems to have been not only artistic and spiritual but romantic, sexual and just about everything else.

What particularly surprised me is how much silly fun some of the choreography proves to be. And while certain critics of the day found Merce's dances too cold and clockwork, the choreographer's love of the group, rather than of the individual, consistently shines through.

From Magnolia Pictures and running a sleek 93 minutes, Cunningham opens here in South Florida (in 2D, which is the version I saw) this coming Friday, January 24, at the O Cinema, South Beach, Miami. It is also opening elsewhere across the country (in 2D and 3D) this week and in the weeks to come. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities & theaters.

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