Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"With searing use of colour and that sense of joy in physicality that was key to the master's work, this is a film that you will find it very hard to look away from."

Released in the US on the 100th anniversary of his birth, Alla Kovgan's documentary about legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham pursues a strategy very much in keeping with his philosophy. There is no distancing, no narration or restrictive frame. The camera doesn't stand back; it plunges straight into the thick of the action. Even the timeline is flexible. Kovgan - and the audience along with her - becomes more than mere observer, instead engaging directly with the work, not just seeing but doing.

This is, in part, due to the immersive effects of 3D. Cunningham remains among just a handful of feature-length films to have employed this technology as more than an amusing add-on, yet for all that it contributes to the work, the film looks surprisingly good even if viewed without it. This is because its power stems in part from the construction of the dance pieces we see, which goes back to Cunningham's own work, the reconstructive skills of Robert Swinston and Jennifer Goggans and a series of dazzling sets, some created, some found, all distinctively framed by Kovgan's camera. With searing use of colour and that sense of joy in physicality that was key to the master's work, this is a film that you will find it very hard to look away from.

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Putting the dance front and centre - indeed, centring the audience within it - Kovgan invites viewers to get to know the man through his art, which is perhaps as good a way as any. Those hoping for more traditional biographical material will find their needs supplied through archive audio material from the likes of Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Cunningham's partner John Cage provides more personal insights, helping us to understand the toughness it took to turn artistic vision into reality, often with very little money, despite the enthusiastic participation of a litany of famous names in the art world. We also hear from Cunningham himself, reflecting on his relationship with his work - the fierceness he could muster when needed but also his inclination to be a part of it rather than taking the helm, because it was the art, not the man, that mattered.

Cunningham's work is rooted in an appreciation of what a trained body can do, in expressions of physical possibility that come before the aesthetic concerns of the previous wave of choreographers. We see footage of his own dancing which combines discipline with a constant desire to explore, to test the boundaries. Though he hesitated to call himself a revolutionary, the narrative of his flesh is at odds with this. His joy in movement is compelling in itself. Even when he's trying hard to be serious and focused, he can't altogether hide the pleasure that he finds in his art - even in its imperfections.

Far from the usual dry, tonally cautious biopic, Kovgan's film is a true cinematic experience, best seen on the biggest available screen. Cunningham's tale emerges almost as background. This is all about his artistic spirit - an animal thing, for all its humanity, and simply thrilling to watch.

Reviewed on: 14 Dec 2019
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Profile of choreographer Merce Cunningham.

Director: Alla Kovgan

Writer: Alla Kovgan

Year: 2019

Runtime: 93 minutes

Country: Germany, France, US

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