Film captures spirit of dance icon

A must for dancers and fans of the art-form, “Cunningham” is a meditative and often beautiful portrait of dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. By putting the focus on his experimental dances and recreating many of them, director Alla Kovgan establishes the perfect mood on which to reflect upon the iconic artist’s considerable body of work and its lasting legacy.

Cunningham was an influential figure in the world of modern dance. In the film, we see early examples of his dances dating back to the 1940s. Often he collaborated with composer John Cage, and the dances in the movie feature his music. Since Kovgan relies almost exclusively on the voice of his subject and others, many of which have passed away (Cunningham died in 2009), we hear the reasons and motivations directly behind the unique choreographies. And the words of Cunningham seem sincere and filled with a lifetime of knowledge.

This essay documentary uses a stunning collection of archived materials, layering them with newly shot footage of performance. At times, new footage is placed directly beside or imposed upon the older images (in black and white and color). It strikes a contemplative feeling early and holds you as one dance after the next accompanies deep conversation.

There is something of Cunningham’s history hinted at here and there. As he grew older, and his role shifted from the leader and member of his company to more of a teaching role, the evolution of a master is on full display. And because there are so many brilliant performances in the film, it is impossible not to be affected by one or more of them.

Like the work of its subject, filmmaker Kovgan adopts an innovative approach to capture the spirit of the man. The dances are symbolic of many of life’s everyday activities and struggles. It’s surprisingly connective as dancers, young and old, reproduce Cunningham’s carefully planned unique movements.

“Cunningham” is in limited release this weekend, and watching it on the big screen should enhance its immersive qualities.

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