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by Jay Seaver

"Modern Dance 101 in 3D."
3 stars

I wonder what sort of a minority I am in coming to see "Cunningham" for the 3D photography as much as the dance, and how many people who came for the dance were hoping for something a little more in-depth. It's the sort of documentary about an artist and his career that relies heavily on demonstration, and as such seems like a good introduction with an intriguing hook, albeit one whose gimmick will only be briefly available.

Filmmaker Alla Kovgan covers Merce Cunningham's career from 1942 to 1972, when he created some of his most famous pieces as a choreographer and dancer, often in collaboration with composer John Cage and designer Robert Rauschenberg. Rather than simply presenting period footage of varying quality, they often recreate the performances, sometimes on a stage and sometimes on location. More context is given with archival interviews, not necessarily contemporaneous with the black-and-white photos and footage shown. It's a clear demarcation - the vital material is in vivid, colorful motion, while the rest is supplementary, filling in the gaps.

Letting the dance and Cunningham's own words speak for themselves is a nifty choice, although I suspect that it doesn't present a whole lot of new information or special insight for those who already know something about dance in general and Cunningham in particular. What Kovgan chooses to include as writer/director/editor makes for an intriguing lesson plan, providing just enough information for even us laymen to start to examine the dance ourselves. From the very start, she's redirecting how viewers think of dance by including comments from Cunningham about divorcing the movements from storytelling and music, focusing on the technical more than the biographical. There is some of that, certainly, but as asides and jumping-off points. For better or worse, Kovgan builds the film around Cunningham's position that his dance is almost entirely about movement.

Which may be enough for a 90-minute movie. I found myself fascinated by how he would introduce randomness into his choreography with coin flips, akin to animators adding chaotic movement to crowd scenes, or when he would incorporate moves that briefly look like stumbles until they lead into something else (compare it to the seemingly more improvised crashing to the floor in Gaspar NoƩ's Climax). Unlike many other dance documentaries, this one doesn't focus so much on the dancers' athleticism so much as the choreography itself.

The dance sequences themselves are reason enough to watch the film, from the opening where a dancer almost seems to levitate to the recreation of 1968's "Rainforest" with Andy Warhol's contribution of "silver pillow" foil balloons. Kovgan and cinematographer Volker Bertelmann prove equally adept and catching small details and framing things to guide viewers' eyes through chaotic, conflicting movement, with the colorful "Summerspace" a particular stand-out. More documentaries and performance pieces should be shot in 3D, because seeing these dances in space, both intended and updated, is pretty amazing; though some pieces come across as Bertelmann playing with his camera rig, others seems as if they'd become much harder to follow if flattened. Pina is the last doc I recall doing this, and was similarly eye-opening, even for those of us that don't know much about dance.

"Cunningham" does, unfortunately, slow down a fair amount toward the end, as the company unravels after a world tour in 1964 and there's no real narrative, which the film feels like it needs for a clean exit, because of the complete focus on choreography. There's still impressive dance sequences, though, and I must admit that I'm hoping for a 3D disc to examine them closer.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=33216&reviewer=371
originally posted: 01/14/20 14:05:15
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Alla Kovgan

Written by
  Alla Kovgan


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