Merce Cunningham‘s centenary this year has been marked by various celebrations and tributes. The latest is the documentary Cunningham, directed by Alla Kovgan, which focuses on the revered dancer and choreographer’s artistic development between 1944 and 1972. Old interviews with Cunningham and his myriad collaborators (including John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg) are combined with contemporary re-stagings of 14 of his pieces from this period. The juxtaposition is often instructional; early on, when Cunningham speaks of how he drew from ballet to choreograph leg movements but modern dance for the torso, the subsequent dance sequence illustrates this for the lay viewer.
These sequences are shot in 3D, which makes for an occasionally dazzling showcase for Cunningham’s manipulation of the human body. The film peaks during performances of Summerspace, where Rauschenberg’s pointillist backdrop and costumes become incredibly striking, and RainForest, where the dancers’s interplay with Andy Warhol’s famous mylar balloons also pop (figuratively). Often, though, Kovgan doesn’t make full use of the format’s potential. The archival footage and interviews are not in 3D (the effect remains in that they are “projected” onto a screen within the film, which gets tiresome after a while), and their distant, restrained look doesn’t fit well with the vivacious dances.
Even the dances feel like a missed opportunity, though. Fitting 14 of them into the film’s 90-minute runtime alongside the older footage means that no more than a few minutes of each can be incorporated, so the viewer gets no more than the most basic sense of what each piece is like. A helpful contrast is Wim Wenders’s 2011 film Pina, which does something very similar, staging some of Pina Bausch’s most famous dances in 3D. That film only tackled four pieces, showing extracts from each one at great length, and had almost no outside commentary, allowing the choreography to speak for itself. While Cunningham’s words aren’t unwelcome, it would have been preferable to see more of his wonderful, unique dances in action. What the film does present is worth the price of admission alone, particularly in 3D, but it still feels like a missed opportunity.