2020, PG, 93 min. Directed by Alla Kovgan.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Jan. 3, 2020
Of all the things gleaned from this documentary on Merce Cunningham, the influential dancer and choreographer who basically put the “modern” in modern dance, I think my favorite aspect is how he repeatedly eschewed the idea that he was avant-garde: a motif threaded in via at least three separate interviews throughout Alla Kovgan’s film. But let’s take a tangent briefly to discuss what that phrase may mean. Initially a military term denoting the vanguard of an army, it became synonymous with a number of early 20th century groups (your Cubists, Dadaists, Futurists, etc.) that were reacting to the storm of repeated destruction of global war and tyranny (insert irony here). So every time some interviewer speaks about Cunningham’s work as avant-garde, he gets notably agitated.
As artists do. Because no one likes to be compartmentalized to certain specificities. Yet history rarely works like that. It tends to want things nice and neat. Cunningham’s method was one of not interpretation, but of presentation, leaving the audience to discern meaning. There is a prominent aspect to his work that concerns the distance we have with each other, even while the dancers are constantly entwined. It is one of the hallmarks of his legacy to modern dance, but not everyone embraced it. During an infamous Paris performance, wherein Cunningham and dancers were pelted with eggs and tomatoes, Cunningham lamented that no one threw any apples, because he was hungry.
And that speaks to a larger query. One of hunger. One of obsession to fulfill something. “You find a way to function, or you quit,” Cunningham says during one interview. Kovgan intersperses the usual biographic hagiography with 3D contemporary stagings of his dances (alas, this reviewer had only the 2D version to consider). Those stagings, often split-screen with the original performances are highlights of the film. Collaborating with some of the titans of modernism (Name check: John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns), Cunningham adheres to a distinctly romantic approach to the artist: irascible and railing against the hypocrisy of humanity through these wonderful and complicated movements that soar above and beyond. Ultimately, that’s what propels this film, a delineation of art, a dissection of the world through dance, and a fascinating portrait of one of the (apologies) avant-garde voices of the 20th century, dance, and more pointedly, of a way art can illuminate the world we inhabit.