Review by Sean Boelman
Cunningham, from filmmaker Alla Kovgan, is a new documentary profiling the iconic dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Through the use of archive footage and gorgeous recreations of some of Cunningham’s most famous work, Kovgan creates not a biography of a genius, but instead, a love letter to the genius of what he accomplished.
In the film, Kovgan examines Cunningham’s prolific career, but not in a way typical of a documentary like this. Instead of presenting the audience with the events that occurred in Cunningham’s career, Kovgan instead uses Cunningham’s works, and his own words in archive interviews, to tell his story.
This untraditional narrative may be hard for some general audiences to swallow, but any viewer who appreciates the art of dance is sure to find this to be one of the most beautiful and captivating documentary experiences of the year. The focus of this movie is placed more firmly on the emotional response caused by the dances than the story.
Still, this film does just as good of a job, if not better, than a biography at making the audience admire the talent and vision of Cunningham. There is no better way to appreciate an artist than to see their work in action, and this movie does just that. Thanks to his voiceover, pulled from archival interviews, the audience is given some very interesting context to the dances being seen on screen, further garnering respect for him as an artist.
The highlight of this film is undeniably the recreations of some of Cunningham’s most iconic works, performed by the last generation of his dance troupe. It goes without saying, but these dancers are extremely gifted and talented, their movements being so graceful that it is nearly impossible to take one’s eyes off of the screen.
Kovgan shoots these dances in an extremely interesting way, partially tied to the way in which the movie is meant to be exhibited. During its theatrical run, this film will be screened in 3D, and hence Kovgan has a lot of depth to her field to maximize the effect of the format. Even in 2D, many of Kovgan’s compositions are breathtaking, with an amazing amount of detail in both the background and the foreground.
The movie also contains quite a few things of interest in its editing. When Kovgan switches to archive footage from the recreations, the archive footage is shown as a smaller frame superimposed onto a still image. It’s an impressive technique that, for the most part, pays off. Another effective thing that Kovgan does is cut between footage of the original performance of one of Cunningham’s dances and the recreation. This helps the viewer understand just how much effort went into staging these numbers.
Although it is certainly more for people who are already familiar with the film’s subject, Alla Kovgan is nonetheless a stunning piece of cinema. This is, without a doubt, one of the most technically impressive documentaries of the year.
Cunningham is now playing in theaters.