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Sun 7 Mar 2021
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Filmmaker Alla Kovgan brings the work of legendary American dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham to life with this innovative documentary.
Jarringly beautiful. 'Cunningham' succeeds in a way that most dance documentaries do not: as an art object in and of itself.
“It’s not politics, it’s dancing,” says Merce Cunningham in audio from an archived interview utilised in Cunningham. It’s as simple and complicated as that for the man considered one of the most important figures in modern dance. The American choreographer and performer made countless contributions to the artform through not just his own work, but his unique instruction of others which emphasised the individual and the imperfections of each dance. A multilayered web of media is constructed to show us how Cunningham’s philosophy influenced his work, noting that although what they did was physical it was up to the audience to interpret what that meant.
Beginning his career in the late 1930s, Cunningham was an artist who thought in infinite possibilities as he handmade costumes that would enhance his delivery and worked with everyone from musicians like Brian Eno and fashion designers such as Rei Kawakubo to make his work truly three dimensional. It’s fitting then that Kovgan utilises the next generation of performers from his dance company to illustrate his points while historic interviews with Cunningham and his disciples play over the movement.
If you didn’t know much about who Merce Cunningham was as a person or his life, you won’t leave the film with newfound understanding, as director Alla Kovgan isn’t interested in following a chronological narrative. The intent seems to be more focused on showing you who Cunningham was rather than telling you. It does this through a variety of means, the most significant being recreations of some of Cunningham’s most notable works with an array of dancers. The performances are staged in breathtaking, modern settings ranging from a train track to a New York rooftop, with costumes designed to enhance the physical storytelling. It might not be the entry point some viewers were looking for, but for modern art obsessives Cunningham is vital viewing.
– Maria Lewis, Assistant Curator, Film
READ: Why Shooting 'Cunningham' in 3D Was 'A Massive Production for Every Shot'
Emily Buder, No Film School, Dec 2019
WATCH: The Six Sides of Merce Cunningham
Walker Art Center, Feb 2017