Given the gift of time travel, you’d have to drop in on the early collaborations of Merce Cunningham and John Cage. Their out-there experimentations refashioned what dance looked like and how it related to music (in short: it didn’t), much to the bafflement of 1940s and 50s America. It was out with dance as a medium to express stories and feelings. Instead, “the dance is the whole visual experience,” said Cunningham. “We don’t interpret – we present, we do.”
In lieu of time travel, we have Alla Kovgan’s 3D film, Cunningham, tracing the choreographer’s life and work from the 40s to the 70s, from early solos and the somewhat ad-hoc formation of his company until the first generation of its dancers moved on (the company closed in 2011, two years after Cunningham’s death).
Kovgan imaginatively presents a treasure trove of archive, skilfully weaving story, dance, image and mood. Each clip is a portal back to this time of intensely fertile creativity, with extracts from Cage’s scores and cameos from Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Morton Feldman and David Tudor.
The real treat is seeing the young Cunningham dance: wild and weightless, with silent bounce and flight but also a grounded, vivid presence. Here was a man who simply had to dance. His movement is freer and weirder than the measured geometries we know from his later company work. As Cage plink-plonks on his prepared piano, it’s no wonder those early audiences scratched their heads. Some people look to art for pleasure, beauty and order in a difficult world, Cage tells us (tongue perhaps slightly in cheek), but his aim was to make art so bewildering that it’s a pleasure to return to everyday life.
We see the perplexed faces of the dancers, in black-and-white footage from the rehearsal studio, wondering what they’re doing, and why. But they were up for the adventure, nine of them touring the US in a cramped VW camper van, missionaries for modern dance in middle America. At a gas station in Ohio the dancers all piled out of the van and started stretching. “Are you comedians?” the attendant asked. “No,” said Cunningham. “We’re from New York.” In 1964 they went to Europe. In conservative Paris, eggs and tomatoes were thrown on stage. But in London they were triumphant. “The voice of today,” said the Manchester Guardian.
Alongside archive gems, former dancer Jennifer Goggans has staged sequences from Cunningham works, danced in ballrooms, rooftops, parks and studios and filmed in 3D by Kovgan – there’s some similarity to Wim Wender’s excellent Pina Bausch film, embedding dance in the landscape and moving the viewer among the performers. The work looks just as radical, befuddling and brilliant as it did when it was made. As Cage says: “The form is not linear, it’s a field.” In the century since Cunningham’s birth, choreography has not progressed in a straightforwardly consecutive fashion; it circles around itself, with all these questions about how one might move existing in parallel, never to be truly resolved.
The best bit of performance is Summerspace, originally made in 1958, filmed on a cyclorama of Seurat-style dots and matching catsuits, with spinning bodies making the hazy summer camouflage shimmer. Then there’s Winterbranch (1964), filmed on a rooftop at night, illuminated by a roving searchlight.
As for Cunningham the man, his reputation to later members of the company was as someone distant and difficult to communicate with. But Kovgan’s film gives glimpses of his life, in letters of longing from Cage in 1944 (the couple were very private about their relationship); in the story of him knitting his own costumes (notably a multicoloured woollen onesie); or of teaching himself Russian at the breakfast table, so he could speak with dancers at the Bolshoi. When I interviewed Cunningham, late in his life, he was in the habit of following his breakfast by drawing a picture of a bird and listening to recordings of bird calls. The curious creative life was not a decision, or even a vocation, so much as a matter of who he was.
In one audio clip, Cunningham recognises the ridiculousness of his dance obsession with its endless training, asking why someone might dedicate so totally their days to “an instrument that is deteriorating from birth”. What makes the toil worthwhile is the rare alchemy when all the elements sing, the ecstasy, “when things great and small coincide”.
It’s the same experience that can be found watching Cunningham’s dance: the pleasurable endurance, putting in the work for the moments of sudden sense, transcendent clarity, or simple beauty. Some fleeting understanding of the universe, or elevation from it. “The surprise of the instant” he calls it. Kovgan’s film allows Cunningham to provide us with a few more of those surprising moments.