In Focus: ‘That single fleeting moment when you feel alive’

Those horrified by the production numbers in the new movie version of “Cats” might take solace in the exquisite performances of dances by the title choreographer in Alla Kovgan’s exultant and rapturous “Cunningham.”

Though Merce Cunningham pursued his art until his death, in 2009, at 90, Kovgan covers only the first 30 years of his career, from 1942 to 1972. Much of that time was spent in poverty and rejection — Cunningham recalls a stark New York studio where he had to gather wood for heat in winter. But his revolutionary concepts drew other dancers and such collaborators as the painter Robert Rauschenberg and the avant-garde composer John Cage. The latter would become Cunningham’s life partner and with him he would develop such radical notions as the separation of music and dance and the reliance on chance in the creative process. In 1953 this informal, communal-like art collective was established as the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

Merce Cunningham performing. © Robert Rutledge. Courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

Encountering mostly non-comprehension if not downright hostility in New York and in the small towns they journeyed to in their VW bus, the company decided in 1964 to take their chances on a world tour. In Paris they were pelted by tomatoes and eggs. (“I looked at the tomato near me and wished it were an apple,” wrote Cunningham in his journal. “I was hungry.”) But they clicked with audiences in London and after that even the naysayers back home were won over. Soon Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol became collaborators and a new generation of dancers replaced those who had moved on. Yet increasingly Cunningham felt the pressure of managing a thriving organization. “I feel like a bystander who’s been trapped,” Cage recalls him saying. But neither struggle nor triumph diminished his passion for dance.

Though the film provides a clear chronology of these formative years, it does so in an inventive, unorthodox manner inspired by Cunningham’s own untethered creativity. Kovgan deftly collages archival photos, film, and audio recordings of Cunningham, Cage, and others with present-day performances, using split screens, jump cuts, text, and graphics to achieve a lucid dreaming effect. Most compelling are the performances staged in inventive, sometimes surreal settings shot in 3-D. “Summerspace” (1958), in which dancers are clad in tawny polka-dotted leotards that match Rauschenberg’s pointillist set design, seems to take place in an infinite, boundary-less, light-saturated space resembling a Yayoi Kusama installation. In “RainForest” (1968), dancers in pale pink tights energetically intermingle with silver, pillow-shaped balloons designed by Warhol, and the evanescent warmth of their bodies contrasts with the mirrored blackness of the void. As did Wim Wenders in his 3-D documentary “Pina” (2011) about the late German choreographer Pina Bausch, Kovgan demonstrates how the 3-D format is an ideal medium for dance.

“[Dance] gives you nothing back,” says Cunningham. “No manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.” Kovgan’s film comes close to capturing that moment.

From left: John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg. © Douglas Jeffrey. Courtesy Magnolia Pictures.



Directed by Alla Kovgan. At Kendall Square. In 3-D and 2-D versions. 93 minutes. Rated PG (some smoking).

Peter Keough can be reached at

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