Over his 70-year career, choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham revolutionised the art form. As a film recreating his work alongside archive footage is released, Nick Smurthwaite looks back at an American original
Now regarded as one of the most influential dancer-choreographers of the 20th century, Merce Cunningham, who was born just over a century ago and died in 2009, took modern dance to another level.
His groundbreaking work is brought vividly to life in the new feature-length documentary Cunningham released this month. Filmed in 3D, it invites the viewer to step inside the dance, and hopes to create a visceral journey through the choreographer’s world.
By all accounts, there was nobody else quite like Merce Cunningham, both in terms of the dances he created and the way in which he went about creating them.
He once said: “I’m never interested in dancing that expresses the music, so that the dancing is what it is, a whole visual experience. Any kind of interpretation is up to the audience.” He followed that through by separating himself and his dancers from the music, getting them to establish rhythm and pace in silence, which was contrary to everything that had gone before.
A centenary celebration of his work at the Barbican last year delivered 100 solo dances choreographed by Cunningham in 90 minutes. Each one was proudly abstract, with no recognisable narrative or theme. It’s easy to imagine some of the more conventional dance critics 50 years ago might have found them challenging.
In her 90-minute film, Alla Kovgan has chosen to recreate extracts from some of his more accessible pieces, such as Summerspace from 1958, set against a beautiful pointillist landscape created by one of Cunningham’s long-term collaborators, the artist Robert Rauschenberg, and Rainforest in 1968, for which Andy Warhol created a bunch of inflatable clouds, which the dancers cavorted around.
‘What struck me about Merce was his perseverance and how open he was to things’ – Film director Alla Kovgan
Interwoven with the present-day recreations of his work is black-and-white archive footage of Cunningham dancing and talking about his work. Kovgan originally thought it would be too difficult to film Cunningham’s work.
She told one online interviewer: “If you have 14 [dancers] going in different directions, which shot are you going to make?” But, like Cunningham himself, she refused to give up. “What struck me about Merce was his incredible perseverance, how devoted he was to what he did, and also how open he was to things.”
Jennifer Goggans, the film’s director of choreography and a former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, says: “There is a certain poignancy in hearing Merce’s voice for those of us that knew and worked with him.”
She continues: “The archival materials that Alla uncovered in her research are simply stunning, but what touched me most of all was being reminded of the perseverance and determination of everyone involved in the formative years of the company and Cunningham’s openness to the generation that followed.”
As well as choreographing more than 180 dances and more than 700 ‘events’ in his 70-year career, Cunningham latterly worked with video, TV, computer programming and motion capture to explore different ways of interpreting his work.
He danced with Martha Graham’s Company from 1939 to 1945 – she was clearly an enormous influence – before forming his own company in 1953, taking Graham’s stark, unadorned, free-form style in new directions.
A dance purist first and foremost, he went to great lengths to avoid using even the most spartan sets and costumes in his work. Rauschenberg once described collaborating with Cunningham as “excruciating” because “nobody knew what anybody else was doing until it was too late”.
Carolyn Brown, one of Cunningham’s favourite dancers, said of him: “The truth is Merce is no collaborator. He is a loner.” Another (anonymous) collaborator says in the film that the choreographer “wasn’t the easiest person to work with – he hates sets, he hates costumes, so you have to work around him without him noticing”.
However he did work fruitfully with the avant-garde composer John Cage on a number of dance projects in the 1940s and 1950s, although it was probably less of a collaboration than a combining of separate talents. Both men eschewed commercial success and their work was frequently misunderstood and vilified by the critics. Although Cage was married when they met in the early 1940s, they became lovers and stayed together until Cage’s death in 1992.
If the documentary lacks analytical heft – there is a conspicuous absence of expert critical comment – it is because Kovgan was looking to bring the breadth of Cunningham’s vision to a new generation of dance enthusiasts.
The New York Times, reviewing the documentary in December 2019, said it was “an excellent introduction to a great body of work that can be hard to get a handle on”.
Perhaps the greatest triumph of Kovgan’s film is that it finally realises Cunningham’s ambition to create an immersive environment through dance. She says: “Today, 3D allows for his dream to come true.”
Cunningham is showing at selected cinemas from March 13