A documentary by Alla Kovgan. Rated G
“I have nothing to say,” Merce Cunningham once wrote, “and I am saying it.”
That Zenlike dichotomy drove the art and life of the famous dancer and choreographer, under reconsideration in this lovingly crafted tribute, which combines archival footage, nifty graphics, interviews with surviving colleagues, and new interpretations shot in 3-D, in stunning and varied locations. (The copy I saw for review, however, had only two Ds.)
Cunningham’s work has another think coming because, among other reasons, his lasting influence is harder to define than that of, say, George Balanchine, who imposed a militaristic order on classical dance and onto the body types allowed to do it. To be sure, the man born Mercier Philip Cunningham in 1919, had his own aesthetic at play, but his view of dancers was more ecumenical, in terms of physique and independence of motion, anticipating the much freer styles of today.
Directed by Russian-born Alla Kovgan, the fast-moving doc is purposely light on background, so you have to guess at his beginnings. Raised in a family of lawyers in Washington state, Cunningham learned from tap dancers and circus performers before going to Seattle’s Cornish Institute to study acting—something he eventually rejected for being too text-based (even if he looked like the pensive star of an Ingmar Bergman drama). He loathed memorization and fixed references for the rest of his career, which took off just before the war, as part of the Martha Graham Dance Company. In 1953, he formed his own outfit, touring the U.S. in a beat-up VW van.
He soon hooked up, artistically and romantically, with John Cage, who shared his dislike of conventional structures.
“We had many things in common,” a vintage Cage recalls on the soundtrack, “including ideas and poverty.”
He was a great believer in chance, sometimes throwing the I Ching to determine the course of a given performance.
Never popular in the States, the company—which often performed without music or to sounds improvised on the spot—was wildly lauded in London but battered with rotten tomatoes in Paris. (“The audience left halfway through to buy more fruit,” Cunningham later quipped.) But he continued to attract top-flight set-design collaborators, including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol, whose helium-filled mylar balloons help make the re-created “Rainforest” one of many visual highlights here.
The 90-minute film may not cohere into an overwhelming whole, like Wim Wenders’s Pina Bausch doc, its most obvious antecedent. But its subject will prove inspiring to many artists struggling with the meaning of their own work. “I don’t interpret,” he firmly declared. “I present.” Merce managed to continue giving presents until the age of 90, and through it all, he heard far more than the sound of one hand clapping.