Whether they’re showcasing singers or scientists, crooks or iconoclasts, most documentaries that delve into the life and legacy of a particular person follow a fairly strict formula: a birth-to-earth biographical rundown illustrated with archival footage and talking-head interviews.
Fittingly and fortunately, Alla Kovgan boldly breaks free of this restrictive rubric, creating a true cinematic work of art with “Cunningham,” a stunning chronicle of the groundbreaking genius of revolutionary American dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, whose notions about movement, space and staging remain influential.
The film focuses on the first 30 years of Cunningham’s career – he continued to create until his death in 2009 at the age of 90 – touching on his collaborations with pioneering composer John Cage as well as visual artists Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, recalling the founding of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and its early shoestring tours in a VW microbus and recounting the troupe’s 1964 world tour, during which the dancers dodged tomatoes and eggs in Paris but were triumphantly received London.
The documentary’s director, writer and editor, Kovgan presents her intriguing Cunningham introduction as a sort of collage of archival footage and interviews, voiceovers, letters and sketches. It’s not a comprehensive biography, but it’s one that seems to convey the spirit of the enigmatic icon, who steadfastly refused to label his work as avant-garde or even modern and opted to leave its interpretation to audiences.
“I don’t describe it. I do it,” Cunningham insists in the film.
It seems appropriate that Kovgan’s documentary focuses on recreating 14 of his landmark dance works, with the aid of Cunningham associates Robert Swinston and Jennifer Goggans. Having recruited the last generation of Cunningham dancers that he personally trained to perform his signature pieces, Kovgan and cinematographer Mko Malkhasyan stage them in stunning locations like the top of a New York City highrise, a pristine forest and a shiny silver tunnel.
Shot in vibrant 3D, the dance sequences veritably leap, spin and gyrate off the screen, offering a captivating visual spectacle that does more to spotlight Cunningham’s ingenuity than all the eloquent droning of a dozen expert interviews.