(London Filn Festival, Thursday October 10th 2019, Odeon Tottenham Court Road, Central Cross, 30 Tottenham Court Rd, London W1T 1BX, UK, 18:15 pm)
"Cunningham" traces Merce’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 '3D' technology weaves together Merce's philosophies and stories, creating a visceral journey into his innovative work. A breathtaking explosion of dance, music, and never-before-seen archival material, the film is a timely tribute to one of the world’s greatest modern dance artists.
During the years 1942-1972, he made his dances against all odds. He was always ready to place himself in unfamiliar situations and find new solutions. Throughout his career he embraced new technologies, from 16mm, television and video to the use of computers, body sensors and motion-capture technology. Cunningham had arrived in the city in 1939 with an invitation to join Graham’s company. In the 1940s, Merce Cunningham, along with John Cage, began a journey that would change the relationship between contemporary dance, music and art. Cunningham proposed the revolutionary idea that dance could exist independent of music, a concept that would dominate his unparalleled career for more than half a century. He popularized the idea of dance as a visual experience and trained some of the greatest dancers of his time, including Paul Taylor, Viola Farber, Douglas Dunn, Charles Moulton, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, Ashley Chen and Jonah Bokaer. 'The United States', and New York in particular, was becoming the global center of artistic innovation. 'Abstract Expressionist' painters like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, radical composers including Arnold Schoenberg, and Martha Graham’s revolutionary troupe dominated the cultural scene. In 1944, he presented his first solo concert with composer John Cage, who became his frequent collaborator and lifelong romantic partner. Together they explored groundbreaking artistic philosophies, incorporating experiments with chance into their work as a way to free themselves from preconceived ideas.
The pair acquired a third creative partner in 1952 when they met the then- emerging artist Robert Rauschenberg at the experimental, arts-focused 'Black Mountain College' in North Carolina. Like Cunningham and Cage, Rauschenberg resisted labels during his lengthy career, but is widely acknowledged as a forerunner in many art movements that developed after 'Abstract Expressionism'. Without a steady source of income, they collected scrap wood off the street and burned it to keep warm in winter. Cunningham rehearsed in his living space and often alone. In 1953, Cunningham launched 'The Merce Cunningham Dance Company' so he could concentrate full-time on his explorations. "Cunningham" includes a treasure trove of archival materials, a visual record of the dancer’s singular talent, Merce alone and with his company, rehearsing, performing, choreographing, and teaching. Often dressed in rehearsal clothes, he and his dancers bend, leap, spin and fall with abandon, combining what he thought were the best elements of classical ballet with the most interesting innovations in modern dance. One of the most memorable is a Rauschenberg-designed pointillist backdrop used for the original presentation of 'Summerspace', a 1958 collaboration. In the 1960s, Andy Warhol, the major figure of New York avant-garde film world, spent quite a bit of time in Merce’s studio. By the early 1970s, Merce began working with film and video himself primarily with filmmaker Charles Atlas. When Carolyn Brown, the last original member of his first company, left in 1972, that, the end of an era.
Dance pioneer Merce Cunningham created some of the most iconic, influential work of his generation, incorporating the groundbreaking artistic ideals of mid-century visual arts and music, and redefining his art form. During a lifetime of artistic engagement with such diverse musicians as John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol, Cunningham created a new dance technique and celebrated movement as manifestation of being human and of being alive. After his death in 2009 at the age of 90, many felt uncertain about the future of his legacy and his fearless innovations. The new documentary "Cunningham" guarantees that his work will live on, in a stunning immersive experience that preserves some of his greatest works. Neither a straightforward biopic nor a traditional concert film, "Cunningham" was conceived as a 93-minute art piece that would tell the master’s story through his work. Combining Cunningham’s fascinating life experiences with his landmark artistic achievements, the film forges a delicate balance between facts and metaphors, exposition and poetry. A tribute to the visionary artist’s creative genius in a journey through the first 30 years of his career in New York City, the film traces the evolution of his thought and channels his spirit. Personal photographs, intimate letters, 16mm and 35mm footage, and home movies of performances, rehearsals, tours and gatherings offer the audience a glimpse of the choreographer’s visionary mind, while excerpts of iconic Cunningham works are performed by the last generation of his dancers and reimagined for '3-D' cinema.
A '3D' movie about an avant-garde choreographer? We can make documentaries about choreographers or dancers as people, about life of a dance company and so on. But how to make a film that will allow the audience to experience choreographers work? "Cunningham" is based on an iconic photo of Merce’s dancers posing in the Robert Rauschenberg’s pointillist décor of his piece 'Summerspace', which was taken by Robert Rutledge in 1958. Merce staged this photograph himself by dropping Rauschenberg’s canvas on both the wall and the floor so it surrounded the dancers. It becomes that even back in the 1950s, before Merce developed the idea of an event, he had been longing to create immersive environments for his dances. The film is drawn to the genius of Merce Cunningham, the intricacies of his mind; his approaches that he invented making his dances; and his philosophies that he followed living his life and re-defining ideas about being human. His story is an incredible triumph of the human spirit. During the first 30 years of his career, between 1942-1972, he persevered, with great determination and stamina, to make dances against all odds. He was always ready to get outside himself, to place himself in unknown situations, and find new solutions. All this took place in a unique artistic climate, during the 1950s and 1960s in New York, when Cunningham and his collaborators were united by their poverty and ideas and art and life had virtually no separation. Merce’s dances evoke a sense of timelessness, a space in between rational and irrational, intellectual and emotional, immediate and eternal, that truly renews us.
'3D' offers interesting opportunities as it articulates the relationship between the dancers in and to the space, awaking a kinesthetic response among the viewers. It also favors uncut choreographed shots, moving camera, and multiple layers of action in relation to the setting, everything that allows working with Merce’s choreography on screen in new ways. Merce and '3D' represent an idea fit, not only because of his use of space but also because of his interest in every technological advancement of his time, from 16mm film to motion capture, and his willingness to adapt and work in unconventional settings/locations, creating over 700 Cunningham Events, I.e. performances comprised of excerpts from different dances adapted for a specific location with the audience following the dancers. Today, '3D' allows for his dream to come true. The film is a 90-minute artwork in itself, which tells Merce’s story through his dances. It's a hybrid, rooted in both imaginary worlds and moving life experiences. A delicate balance between facts and metaphors, exposition and poetry. A single camera approach is used to choreograph the viewer’s eye, highlighting the dimensional relationships among performers and settings, uniquely enabled by '3D' technology. The aspiration has been to develop a unique language, integrating all the elements of the film in a subtle, distinct and poetic way, in Merce’s spirit.
Seeing a dance through the lens of a camera changes everything. While viewing a dance on a stage you are free to look anywhere in the space, whereas the camera has to be carefully and strategically placed as it guides the eye within the limits of its perspective. The lens often skews a shape. For instance, it can make an arm look lifted when it should simply be horizontal or it can distort the spacing dramatically. With the true artistic collaboration that we developed, these small details could be worked out seamlessly and we developed a true understanding for one another’s point of view. Film is forever, so there's an enormous amount of pressure for the performers and an enormous responsibility in making the final choices on the takes. But beyond that trigger of emotion is the fact that he and his early collaborators and dancers tell the story, in their own voices, which gives a weight and power to this film that's undeniable. His willingness to break boundaries has been infectious and engendered courage in all of us. You've to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.