Alla Kovgan directed film on 'one of the most influential choreographers worldwide'
Few choreographers have impacted the world of dance as much as Merce Cunningham. In this, the centenary of his birth, Cunningham's artistic contributions have been celebrated across the globe. And they get a fresh examination in the new documentary Cunningham, directed in 3D by Russian-born filmmaker Alla Kovgan.
"Merce Cunningham is probably one of the most influential American choreographers. Some people think that he's probably one of the most influential choreographers worldwide," Kovgan tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "He was a revolutionary figure in the 20th century."
He continues to influence so many artists and, in general, audiences around the world.
Cunningham opened today in New York and Los Angeles and expands to more cities in the coming weeks. It has qualified for Oscar consideration this year, premiering in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. The documentary explores the choreographer's approach to his art that made him unique: among his insights was to "liberate dance from dependency on music," as the director puts it. That creative breakthrough came in collaboration with avant garde composer John Cage, who was also Cunningham's life partner.
"They introduced that in the 1940s...this idea that dance has to stand on its own legs rather than on the music," Kovgan notes. "That was basically incredibly influential for so many artists that came after that."
Traditional music tended to turn classical dance into a form of illustrative storytelling, rather than pure expressions of energy. Freed from the imprisoning music, Cunningham could create dances that were not strictly narrative. He adhered to that in part by introducing "chance procedures" into his choreographic process.
"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 observes. “Merce used chance to free his mind from habits, preconceptions and cliches of his own mind.”
Cunningham worked with some of the leading visual artists of his time, including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol..
"With Robert Rauschenberg...he had overall 22 collaborations and 16 actually fell on this period we're covering in the film within 1942 and ’72," Kovgan says. "Merce would make choreography and Rauschenberg would make the corps costumes," as well as designing sets and lighting.
To achieve his artistic vision Cunningham needed dancers of a particular kind of strength and dexterity.
"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. That's how he designed the Cunningham Technique."
For the film, Kovgan staged portions of Cunningham's dances, filming them in locations around the world.
"We picked 14 pieces and from those pieces we then take excerpts to be re-imagined in 3D cinema," she explains. "And sometimes those choices were guided by the fact that, 'This is absolutely an iconic sequence. It must be in the film.'... Or 'This is an incredible sequence. I definitely see how we can actually sell this in 3D.'"
When I choreograph a piece by tossing pennies--by chance, that is--I am finding my resources in that play, which is not the product of my will, but which is an energy and a law which I too obey.
Kovgan dedicated her film to David Vaughan, an actor, dancer and choreographer himself who served as the Merce Cunningham Dance Company archivist for over 35 years. Before his death in 2017, Vaughan helped the director find rare archival materials for her film.
"He kept index cards of everything that happened with Merce. Of every performance. Of every recording. Of every interview. Of everything," Kovgan says. "And when I began the project he was still alive and we basically looked for things and we started realizing that there's a lot of stuff that nobody knows where it is... We made quite a few discoveries. We found footage of Merce dancing 'Changeling.' Now this dance was lost for 50 years. Nobody has ever seen it. We found it from the notes that David had and from the book that Carolyn Brown wrote called Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham."
Kovgan says it wasn't her original intention to release the documentary in time for Cunningham's centenary. But now it seems only fitting.
"Maybe that's the reason why this film took many years, like seven years" to finish, she tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "I'm very happy for Merce, actually. I'm happy [it's coming out for the] 100th anniversary of his birth this year. It's kind of incredibly symbolic. I think not a coincidence--synchronicity, I would say."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.