Directed by Russian-born documentarian Alla Kovgan (Movement (R)evolution Africa), Cunningham traces dancer and revolutionary choreographer Mercier Philip “Merce” Cunningham’s artistic evolution over three decades of risk and discovery (1944–1972), from his early years as a struggling dancer in postwar New York to his emergence as one of the world’s most visionary choreographers. The doc weaves together its subject’s philosophies and personal stories, creating a visceral journey into his innovative work. Using never-before-seen archival footage and images, the film is an explosion of dance, music (often composed by frequent collaborator John Cage), and stage design (with backdrops often provided by artist Robert Rauschenberg). Shot in 3-D (although not currently playing in the format in Chicago), Cunningham is a fitting tribute to one of the world’s greatest modern dance artists.
We had the chance to sit down with director/editor Alla Kovgan during the Chicago International Film Festival to discuss the way she decided to profile Cunningham’s choreography for a modern audience and why 3-D was the best way to illustrate his edgier ideas about the power of dance.
In order to understand Merce’s art, you really do need to understand the way his mind worked, the way he says things, and his philosophies. It went so far beyond choreography. Do you think that he saw modern dance and its practices as something that needed to be destroyed in order to build something new again? Or did he just have no use for its conventional practices at the time?
Alla Kovgan: You have to remember that he comes form Martha Graham, which is theatrical dancing. His early background is in Vaudeville, also in theatrical dancing. So he actually liked theater a lot, and if you look at his solos—the ones he did—he loved theater and is quite a theatrical performer himself. However, what he was interested in—and I think this was greatly influenced by his love of John Cage—was trying to invent something different, and he was living in a world of arts that was all about that: reinvention, finding something new. So when he decided to invent this new dance—and how many people invented a style of dance in the history of dance; not so many—I don’t think he was interested in destroying it. In the says in the film, “I took ballet legs and molded them to a modern-dance torso.” And that how his kind of dancing was born. And then he created a series of exercises and ways to train the body that would be able to have both styles. So that’s what he did, but I don’t think he wanted to destroy it, but he wanted to do something else, and for that he needed a newly trained dancer.
It didn’t seem that he was interested in teaching people his choreography as much as he wanted to collaborate and see where the dancers’ strengths were, and use that in the final production.
He was looking at what each dancer could offer, but when it came to actual work, making a dance, I think he actually came up with the steps. He would spend a lot of time by himself doing that. Later on, he even used computers to generate movements, and then make his dancers try them. Even if every dancer does the same movement, every dancer does it differently, and then he’d look at you and tell them to take it to the extreme, and if you tell people to do that, they will. And what starts happening is that all of them are doing it beyond their abilities, and that’s when it starts getting interesting. He did choreograph steps himself, but he allowed them to be themselves doing them.
He was forgiving if they didn’t do it exactly like he did.
If they got what he meant, that was enough sometimes, because he was interested in what they had to offer. “You have the steps, now what do you have to offer.”
Where did your interest in this subject even begin?
I’ve been doing these type of dance film collaborations for 20 years, so I’ve known Merce’s name, but I never imagined making a film about him because he’s the kind of choreographer who works in space, and you have 16 people going in different directions, so how could you get that in a single shot? You have no shot. Plus, there are like 15-plus docs on Merce. He made films himself. What happened when 3-D came out and Pina [the Wim Wenders film about the late German choreographer, Pina Bausch], I kept thinking about how 3-D could have something to do with dance.
Since it was my interest to bring performing arts into the cinema, I literally went to the last performances of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company when they were shutting down in 2011, and there was a Rockefeller Dance Foundation commission to do a film about New York-based choreography using 3-D technology. I was sitting there watching these last performances of this company, thinking that 3-D and Merce were made for each other, because he works in space, and 3-D is really good at capturing motion in space. It allows you feel the relationships between the dancers to each other and the environment—it’s physiological; you feel it; you’re immersed; Cunningham sucks you in.
Then I was looking at the last generations of Cunningham dancers trained by Merce himself. At that moment, there wouldn’t be anymore dancers. So this ephemerality, on the one hand, and 3-D on the other, that’s what prompted me to get over myself and apply on behalf of the project with the foundation and convince the Merce Cunningham Trust to do it.
The way you use 3-D, you really are on the stage, between the dancers sometimes. Did they have to choreograph around them sometimes?
It’s a great question, and nobody asks this. I worked with two directors of choreography who worked with Merce directly, and we did not change a single beat of choreography. The choreography itself, we didn’t touch; it’s exactly how Merce did it. And they were very careful about that because he’s not around anymore. However, the idea was not to capture dance but to translate Merce’s ideas into cinema. So we started with physical questions, not emotion or music, because he always started with questions. So we would identify physical questions and we’d think about how cinema would treat them. If it’s dance based on the action of falling, we’d put the dancers on a rooftop; if it’s a dance based on togetherness, we’d try to create a confined space; if it’s about layering, we put it in the woods.
Every location was incredibly thought through, and it’s heightened the idea behind the dance. If you bring dancers to those locations and spaces, you are contracting or expanding it basically. If you give them a little platform in the woods of a certain size, you need to adapt. Also, you want your camera to be inside, coming right in the middle of that platform. So the camera—whether it’s on a crane or being held by a person—has to be incorporated in this choreography. So absolutely the dancers had to duck under or go around, but what you saw on screen was never altered choreographically.
Talk about the process of going through archives for footage. You started out as an editor and you edited this film, so is that daunting or a dream come true to have access to that much material?
If 3-D was daunting, editing was not, because it’s something I do. I’ve made films out of 300 hours of film; it’s something I do and am confident and comfortable doing. However, with 3-D, the question becomes “What do we do with the archival footage in a 3-D movie?” How do you create a coherent movie. No offense to Wim Wenders, but projecting it in space doesn’t create coherence. We thought of the archives as, every shot is like a Joseph Cornell box—he’s a visual artist from New York, the same area as Merce. He made boxes and if he liked some artist, he would dedicate a box to them. He would put different elements in them, almost like a collage or sculpture inside.
Merce was photographed by 70 photographers within the 30 years of our film, so he was always being captured. Then of course we found new footage. So every time we had those elements, we thought of it as a collage that reveals different parts of him, unless it was an interview because we wanted people to focus on his face. The collage was in 3-D space on different planes, despite the fact that they are flat elements, and that took a lot longer than I had expected. If I’d had more time, I would have pushed it even further. It’s a very different way of thinking about archives, in 3-D space; it’s a very different idea of what you can do with it. We might have been the first to try it.
I understand it took a while to get all of the financing in place. Was there a particular aspect to his story that was the thing that pushed it through and got you the rest of the money to make the movie?
We had a fantastic producer who felt that non-fiction cinema has to be a cinematic experience, and once we started talking about that—a 3-D cinematic experience about a legendary American choreographer, that was the way we started thinking about it—then you have to convince the world. We had to make the film European. But there was one particular moment that pushed us, because nobody knows who Merce Cunningham is or John Cage, nobody even knows Robert Rauschenberg. The only name that ever gets a reaction is Andy Warhol [who design for some of Cunningham’s performances as well]. So what tipped it was the 3-D cinematic experience, so when our sales agent came on board in 2017, we still didn’t know that we needed that last piece. But we had enough already to present that the sales agent could see the potential of what it would become, and he was the guy who was interested in bringing non-fiction cinema to theaters, and that’s what tipped it. That’s how we got Magnolia [Pictures] on board. Other people couldn’t see it, but he could.
You do spend a little time about the critical response to Merce’s style of dance. Did you learn anything from reading the criticism, either positive or negative?
The critics didn’t understand what he was doing at the time—they still don’t [laughs]. But you have to think about the way people walk down the street. They don’t need any music. Look at Central Park: everybody runs differently. Our personalities come through by the way we move. The meaning comes from what we psychologically carry and put on what we see. If we look at one guy running a certain way, we’re going to see one thing, and I’m going to say another thing. What we see is different. That’s what Merce was all about. He presents something and he wants you to see and interpret the way you want. He said that dance is a visual experience, and you don’t always require a story from a visual experience. You can just absorb it. There is a story there, even thought it may not be intended by the artist.
I understand why people don’t accept him and always question it, but once you engage on his terms and just watch what happens, a lot of things get revealed. Merce made about 170-180 dances. Did all of them work? He would be the first person to say No, but because he was willing to go through that process—sometimes it works and sometimes it didn’t—he manages to make masterpieces. That is a quintessential thing. Whether people liked it or didn’t like it, whether they accepted it or not, in his canon of works, he definitely created 20-30 absolute masterpieces for whatever reason. They are all very different. I think it’s completely normal that people hate his work, and it’s just as normal that people love his work. The only invitation he sends to us is “Open your eyes and take a look.”
Do you think he someone who is influential, but people today don’t realize that he’s the reason dance is the way it is now?
Absolutely. But what he did is very political. Even in the movie, someone says “No one was responsible, but everyone was not responsible.” Everybody is responsible for themselves and doing the job the best they can, and when they come together, they don’t harm each other because they’re so good at what they do. All of this stuff was an incredible amount of politics—it’s about your thinking, about freeing dance from music, collaborating, trusting, and willing to accept that it may not work. And being driven not by profit but by ideas, vision. That way of thinking is influencing everyone, whether it’s Google or some punk rock band. These ideas are not revolutionary; they’re actually natural. But at the time, because they stuck with it, the company was around for 70 years. That’s why his influence spread, because a lot of people worked with him, and everyone is a big choreographer or artist or something. There was a school; they educated people and brought them up, and those people spread his ideas further and further. And I think it’s also cross-disciplinary, throughout the dance community, art, music—he was the one who broke down those walls and brought them together. He was there first.
Thank you so much. Best of luck with this.
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