Cunningham review – powerful 3D documentary about a dance pioneer

This highbrow study is fascinating less for its fancy 3D footsteps than for its insight into choreographer Merce Cunningham’s life and work

The 3D format, all the rage for about five minutes after Avatar, makes a comeback. Not deployed for a Hollywood blockbuster, but to capture dance in a documentary about the pioneering choreographer Merce Cunningham, who died in 2009 aged 90. The headachey effect of the technology (and faff for the glasses-wearers of having to put 3D goggles over our specs) justifies itself with some gorgeous closeups that take the viewer right inside the sequences. Yet the most exhilarating footage is the black-and-white archive of the young Cunningham dancing with uncanny animal alertness. He had the most beautiful feet: exquisite long articulate toes, each one a dancer in its own right, a personal troupe of 10.

The film is, I think, just as Cunningham would have wanted it: cerebral, highbrow and mildly frustrating, with nothing so conventional as talking heads or context. His work was unlike anybody else’s, with its insistence that dancing is its own language, not there to express the music or to tell a story. One of Cunningham’s methods was “choreography by chance”, throwing dice or using I Ching to decide the sequence of movements. In the 1940s, he began a lifelong partnership with the composer John Cage, who provided jangly experimental scores. The men were also a couple, but that’s exactly the kind of autobiographical detail this film holds itself above.

Merce Cunningham in 1967.
Animal alertness … Merce Cunningham in 1967. Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

The movie covers his working life from the 1940s to the 70s. Cunningham gives the impression of being ego-free and open, yet in rehearsals his dancers look tense, desperate to please. The company was disbanded after his death; some members returned to perform in the 3D dances here. In archive interviews, Cunningham, Cage and the gang speak with an idealistic earnestness we’ve lost in today’s culture. You can only imagine such eagerness now through the irony of a Wes Anderson filter, with Willem Dafoe as an ageing Cunningham.

• Cunningham is in UK cinemas on 13 March, and to watch online click here.


Cath Clarke

The GuardianTramp

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