Dazzling use of 3D brings avant garde dance alive in ‘Cunningham’

As a rule, 3D films have been a huge disappointment for me as a moviegoer. It seems only the big budget action films were in 3D. The movies cost more and often the result was new and interesting ways for the film to throw pointy-things at the viewer. The only exception for me was the jumping mice in the animated movie, Coraline.

That’s until I saw Alla Kovgan’s documentary Cunningham (released 12/13/2019) about avant garde choreographer and dancer, Merce Cunningham (1919-2009). There, Kovgan used 3D to bring excerpts from 14 of Cunningham’s dances to life. 

Review by FF2 Media Contributor Elisa Shoenberger

The film focuses on thirty years of Cunningham’s work from 1944-1972, when he made the journey from a struggling dancer to esteemed choreographer. To say that Cunningham’s work is unconventional is an understatement; his work pushes the absolute limits of what dance can be. My mother remembers going to a Cunningham performance when she was in high school where the dancers skipped rope and did handstands; she recalls other people walking out, likely angry or frustrated that the performance did not conform with their images of what dance should be. 

For Kovgan, this unconventionalness was part of the challenge of making a documentary about the choreographer.  In her director’s statement, Kovgan says: “Yet I never imagined working with his choreography on film because of the complexity of his choreographic structures and his infinite explorations in time and space.” 

Moreover, there’s the challenge of filming dance of any sort. Jennifer Goggans, one of the directors of choreography, explains how film can change how dance is seen: “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.”

3D helped present a solution to both difficulties. Kovgan explained, “it articulates the relationship between the dancers in and to the space, awaking a kinesthetic response among the viewers.”

While watching the film, viewers are definitely immersed into the dances —whether they take place on a backdrop of painted spots or in a lush green forest. The camera feels almost as if it too is dancing through space just as the dancers move through theirs. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Kovgan notes this marriage between 3D and Cunningham: “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…”

However, 3D doesn’t always work in the film for me. Notably, the very first shot takes place in a tunnel. The scene is disorienting and concerning; it made me wonder if the rest of the film would make me feel this way, but thankfully the other 3D dances don’t have the same effect. There are occasional moments of feeling unsettled during 3D sequences but they were fleeting. Of course, the first shot may have set the tone of the film, mirroring how Cunningham’s dances were often perplexing to his audiences.

While the film is largely dedicated to the dances, it does tell the story of Cunningham’s life through those 30 years. There’s archival footage of Cunningham’s dances and rehearsals at the time they were first created (the 3D footage is obviously much later) as well as photos, audio of personal letters being read aloud, and much more. Not only did Kovgan have the challenge of documenting Cunningham’s dances, she’d have to integrate these effectively 2D images/film into the rest of the film.

And it worked. When 1960s footage of a rehearsal or performance was being run, Kovgan managed to frame the 2D imagery in such a way to make it standout, sometimes literally, from the background. It’s neat to see the two types of materials side by side – the more modern stagings of Cunningham’s dances for the 3D parts and the archival material, some of which had never been seen on the big screen before. “All the archival footage remains in 2D but we work with it as a sculptor would, collaging them in 3D cinema space,” describes Kovgan about the integration.

Not only did Cunningham play with notions of what dance was, he worked with avant garde painters and artists. The film touches on his relationships with pop artists Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Rauschenberg and Cunningham partnered on over 20 performances where the pop artist worked on the set, lighting and costume design. Some of the most striking dances in the film were based on this collaboration, notably “Summerscape” with the pointillist backdrop and costumes, which also provided final inspiration to the director for the documentary. 

Of course, talking about visual art and Cunningham would be incomplete without talking about “RainForest,”  the piece that used Warhol’s Silver Clouds on the set; the dancers would literally run into the balloons throughout their piece. It’s glorious to see on film in 3D.

So what about the man, Merce Cunningham? The documentary paints him as a very driven man who has a vision that he can only fulfill by striking out on his own. The dances are the focus of the story—Kovgan says she wanted to tell his story through dance— so the finer details of his life were lacking a bit. There’s some discussion by former female dancers about how they wanted a larger role in the dances and how Cunningham had created a dance to fulfill that desire but took the best roles for himself. There’s a sense of the difficult man underneath. 

But I don’t think knowing more about the man himself takes away from the film. It’s Cunningham’s dances that are the real star of this documentary. So if you are a fan of dance or a fan of the avant garde, this is the film for you. 

© Elisa Shoenberger (12/9/19) FF2 Media

Photos Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

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