Good nonfiction storytelling requires artistry beyond talking heads and archives, though creative vision sometimes feels purposely concealed or standardized in documentaries to prioritize substance over style. But here’s a dance documentary that splendidly flaunts its artistic point of view, and fittingly so. Moscow-born filmmaker Alla Kovgan’s feature debut “Cunningham” is what an artform celebrating the very nature and a practitioner of another artform should look and feel like. This is a good time to remember that nonfiction films can be theatrical experiences that demand to be seen on the largest screen possible.
Shot in glorious 3D that makes the technical mode feel indispensable (like in Wim Wenders’ comparable dance documentary “Pina,” sure, but also Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” and even James Cameron’s “Avatar”), Kovgan’s ode to choreography master Merce Cunningham is sensational in every sense of the word. Renewing one’s appreciation of the many wonders of the human body and the space in which it fills and drifts, “Cunningham” celebrates all the things our joints and flexed muscles are capable of, as seen through the mind and poetic dances of an iconic creator.
The artist Kovgan celebrates throughout the vivid frames and staging of her film had been a groundbreaking pioneer of American modern dance for over five decades. You don’t really have to know anything about dance or choreography to appreciate the arresting depth of field or the inventive multi-dimensional art direction in “Cunningham” — although I bet those who know the icon’s work inside and out will connect with Kovgan’s effort at a deeper level. That’s because the filmmaker’s imagery loyally follows in Cunningham’s footsteps and reenacts the ideas of an artist who thought of dance as a visual experience. “We don’t interpret something. We present something. The interpretation is left up to the audience” was Cunningham’s motto. Internalizing this, Kovgan leans heavily on presentation and leaves the processing of things up to the viewers. In that, “Cunningham” comes with a sense of freedom, maybe even a prescription to allow your imagination to run wild.
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With kinetic energy, “Cunningham” picks and chooses from the artist’s influential body of work between 1942-’72 (the first 30 years of his career), and restages excerpts from 14 select dances alongside Robert Swinston and Jennifer Goggans, two fixtures of Cunningham’s dance company. We switch from outdoors to indoors — there are rooftops, a tunnel, a garden and studio spaces that feel either like an explosion of colors or minimally designed, lacquered jewel boxes. A standalone camera guides our immersion in the material and at times, approaches something akin to virtual reality, with 3D making the viewer feel like a part of the action.
The crown jewels of the dances depicted are the vibrant “Summerspace” (1958) and the hypnotic “RainForest,” (1968) with Andy Warhol’s sleek, hovering silver pillows. And then there are scrapbook-type artifacts to complete the adornment of the package: photographs, letters as well as various pieces of footage captured during tours or rehearsals. With a sharp sense of composition and assured handle on the relationship between foreground and background, Kovgan embellishes the depths of the screen with such material, challenging the viewers’ eyes to survey the entire screen to appreciate all the layers of this visually atypical collage of archival material.
There is both intimacy and vastness in “Cunningham,” along with utmost choreographic discipline, lightened by the dancers’ weightless muscle memory. In collaboration with her cinematographer Mko Malkhasyan, Kovgan navigates this complex arrangement of ideas, moves and objects swiftly, occasionally enriching them with voices of Cunningham himself, as well as various longtime friends and collaborators like artists Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, composer John Cage and some members of his dance troupe. We also get treated to memories of the troupe’s early days, when they toured across the U.S. in a minibus without sufficient resources.
Refusing the avant-garde label until he passed away in 2009 at the age of 90 (he was still working then), Cunningham once said, “Inside the body is ecstasy waiting to be released. When it happens to a dancer, he smiles without knowing it.” He might as well be talking about the experience of watching Kovgan’s documentary here; a piece of filmmaking so euphoric in its purpose that you could almost imagine it making Cunningham beam.