Merce Cunningham’s game-changing radicalisation of dance demands an approach to documenting it that goes beyond the traditional. So, director Alla Kovgan’s visual-heavy, 3D attempt makes a lot of sense.
For the American choreographer (1919-2009), dance was not a representation of something else, it simply was ‘the thing’, with every interpretation an audience placed on it equally valid. Arguably, then, the best documentary of his output would just be the dances themselves because Cunningham never intended to create work with some kind of ‘story’ hidden behind it.
Kovgan basically honours this with a collage of restaged dances in woodlands, concert halls and glass-encased architecture, plus short bits of footage from the earlier stages of Cunningham’s career (1944-1972), including the establishment of the now world-famous company bearing his name.
This documentary could never be accused of not letting the dance speak for itself – indeed, the historic and new segments of body-stockinged dancers moving with undulating, freewheeling motions to John Cage’s atonal music are by far the best parts of the film. But the whole thing suffers from relying too heavily on the familiar (and familiarly boring) narrative of: ‘maverick is panned by critics’ followed by ‘world catches up to maverick’s genius’.
There’s also crushingly little interrogation of Cunningham’s practice or in-depth analysis of his evolution as a choreographer and dancer. For regulars in the Sadler’s Wells audience, there’s still plenty to enjoy here, but the fundamental question – who was Merce Cunningham? – remains frustratingly unanswered.