‘Cunningham’ Director Alla Kovgan on Creating a 3D Dance Documentary

Alla Kovgan is a Russian director and filmmaker whose film “Cunningham” won best documentary at the Hamptons Film Festival. The dance documentary looks at the work of dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Kovgan had always been aware of Cunningham’s work. While watching the last performance of the Cunningham company in 2011 before it closed, she felt inspired to tell his story using 3D.

“I was watching these 14 dancers on stage going in different directions, and it was so immersive,” Kovgan says. “The idea was to show Merce’s work in 3D film and create a space that was uninterrupted. You also get immersed in that environment.”

Not only did Kovgan look at ways to reimagine the dances in 3D, but she also looked at how to reimagine the archive material. Surrealist artist Joseph Cornell inspired her with his use of boxes and shadow boxes. “We imagined our archives as boxes,” Kovgan says. “We decided to only use materials that were on celluloid. Any photos would have to be from negatives or slides because they added depth.”

Kovgan presents a selection of Cunningham’s work between 1942 and 1972, the early years. The film was shot over 18 days because “we had no money,” and Kovgan says she storyboarded the entire process so she wouldn’t waste time. Those storyboards came in handy when it came to staging 14 dances of his work.

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Director of Choreography Jennifer Goggans who has been teaching the Cunningham Technique since 2005, first learned about Kovgan’s project through Cunningham collaborator and trustee of the Merce Cunningham Trust Robert Swinston. As soon as Kovgan approached him with the project, he was on board, helping get the ball rolling and introducing Goggans to Kovgan.

“We spent hours going over video archives together and watching Cunningham’s work,” says Goggans, who helped reimagine his dances. Among those were the slick “Summerspace” dance from 1958 and the Andy Warhol-inspired “Rainforest.”

In editing, Kovgan had to weave together the dances and the archives. “We needed to provide enough context to the audience,” she said, which was a challenge for her. “I had to choreograph sound and image to achieve the delicate balance of keeping Merce’s integrity. Yet, I still had to take care of my audience,” she explained.

Through “Cunningham,” Kovgan tells a story about choreography and the art of dance by one of the greatest dancers and choreographers. 3D film adds rich layers and envelopes the viewer in this rich dancer world as she brings Cunningham to life for a new audience.

wim wenders
CREDIT: Bernd Fehr

















Kovgan with Wim Wenders. Wenders says, “Cunningham is an amazing dance film in 3D that, in its form and language, continues what we started with PINA. Masterfully, Alla Kovgan takes this to the next level, combining archival material with her own footage of newly performed Cunningham dances to create a breathtaking experience.”


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