In the opening scenes of Moscow-born filmmaker Alla Kovgan ‘s debut film Cunningham, we hear the man himself slightly piqued as he insists to a radio interview he is neither a avant-garde or a modern dance choreographer He is, he states firmly, just a dancer.
It’s not a question of modesty but more a frustration at people continually feeling the need to pinpoint both his talent and his extraordinary body of work from his 70 year career. Kovgan avoids any urge to make this a conventional documentary in any way at all, and gives us a very sparse narrative on the great man’s life, and focuses on archival footage of the Cunningham Company dancing and some superb recreations of some of his better-known pieces.
We get an occasional glimpse of this highly driven man who found his soul mate and life partner in avant garde composer John Cage who collaborated for most of their lives. But then Cunningham worked with other like minded artists who would also go on to have their own successes like Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol.
Although Cunningham’s visionary work is greatly celebrated and almost worshipped nowadays, that wasn’t always the case. When he and his small Company toured the US in a mini bus to perform wherever they could, very few in their audience liked what they saw. Even when the progressed to doing a major European Tour in 1964, in Paris they were pelted with tomatoes and egg. The Brits however ‘got it’ and gave Cunningham a rapturous reception and extended their run and gave the Company their first good press coverage.
No-one dares to doubt in the film that as a choreographer he was such a genius, and he inspired several of his own dancers like Paul Taylor and Violet Farber to go on and form their own Companies. But as a communicator and manager Cunningham was less of a success, and matters were so bad after Rauschenberg left, that it seemed like the Cunningham Company may not ever survive.
It did much more than that, as Kovagan demonstrated in the masterly re-staging of so many pieces that were impeccably danced. She brought out the sheer beauty of the work , that even if we could not completely understand all the intricacies of the great man’s thinking, we could so appreciate how breathtaking awe-inspiring his legacy really is
The movie was shot in 3D and this is the only way it should be seen