By C.J. Hirschfield

In 1964, renowned and prolific choreographer Merce Cunningham and his troupe embarked on their first world tour. In Paris, angry audience members threw eggs and tomatoes at him. “I wished it was apples; I was hungry,” he recalls. But when they performed in England, the response was dramatically different: “Merce Cunningham Conquers Conservatism,” read the headlines. And although Cunningham famously refused to define his work as modern or avant garde (preferring to let his audience define him based on their experience), he, and his partnerships with celebrated artists of the day, was in the center of an influential group changing the way we characterize music, visual art—and dance.

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The original Merce Cunningham Dance Company.                                                                            ©Robert Rutledge. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The most excellent new film Cunningham, directed by Alla Kovgan, traces the 70-year career of the remarkable visionary who created 180 dances and over 700 events. He was continuously working until his death in 2009 at age 90.

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Merce Cunningham                                                                                                                                                                   ©Robert Rutledge. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

As 2011’s award-winning documentary on choreographer Pina Bausch showed us, films about dance are unconstrained from the need to have dancers on a confining stage—they can be anywhere in space and time, thanks to the freedom that cinema offers.

Cunningham deftly combines black and white archival footage with gloriously colorful dances performed on rooftops (drones and dance—a brilliant combination, as it turns out), in forests, in subway tunnels. The director also uses (but never over uses) techniques like split screen, fast motion and whimsically placed lettering to tell the story of a man and his dance company that constantly explored the possibilities of bodies in space.


Merce Cunningham, Jo Anne Melsher, Marianne Preger-Simon, Anita Dencks, Carolyn Brown, Remy Charlip, and Viola Farber in Minutiae, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, December 8, 1954 Photo: John G. Ross

The original Merce Cunningham Dance Company with Robert Rauscheberg decor. Merce Cunningham, Jo Anne Melsher, Marianne Preger-Simon, Anita Dencks, Carolyn Brown, Remy Charlip, and Viola Farber in Minutiae, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, December 8, 1954                                                     © John Ross

Equally as delightful as the dances themselves, Cunningham is elevated by the fascinating story of his work with wildly creative artists of the day: Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns to name a few. But it is his lifelong romantic partnership and frequent collaboration with composer John Cage that is truly special. I don’t know why we tend to think of avant garde artists as being humorless or without wit, but Cage and Cunningham were anything but.

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Merce Cunningham and John Cage, ca. 1965.   ©Jack Mitchell/Courtesy Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Lauded by critics as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, Cage’s nontraditional music can be discordant and confusing, and he knew it. “My art is so bewildering, compelling and illogical that returning to everyday life is a great pleasure,” he says. The humor, affection and respect the two artists demonstrate for each other in the film, and over many decades, is an inspiration.

The challenges of creating and sustaining a dance troupe are also covered in the film. Cunningham saw each of his dancers as individuals with their own strengths, and allowed them room for improvisation. But the ongoing stress of money, logistics and leadership that some considered patriarchal is also part of the troupe’s compelling story.

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©Martin Miseré. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Cunningham is a feast of color, movement, texture and music, and I think I’ll take the opportunity to see it in 3-D.

There is no doubt that Merce Cunningham changed forever the way we see dance. “I don’t describe it; I do it,” he says, without an ounce of condescension.  Did he ever.

Cunningham, a Magnolia Pictures release, opens January 3 at Landmark’s Shattuck, Rafael Film Center, Embarcadero Center Cinemas and is opening at other theaters throughout the U.S.

See where it is playing near you at the Official Film Website .

Only a few theaters are showing Cunningham in 3D. The Rafael Film Center in San Rafael has selected screenings on January 3, 4 & 5 2:00 & 6:00;
January 6, 7 & 8 6:30. Ticket info here.

Why Shooting ‘Cunningham’ in 3D Was ‘A Massive Production for Every Shot’

The Making of Cunningham in 3D short film.

For more articles and videos see below.

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C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry and produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and has written a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years. She has also written features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.

Hirschfield is former president and board member of the California Attractions and Parks Association, and also serves on the boards of Visit Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Business Improvement District and is on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free monthly movies in Oakland and Piedmont. C.J. says, “Documentaries make me a better person.”

-Visit the Merce Cunningham Trust website.

-Root of an Unfocus: On Cunningham, Cage, and “Common Time,” an essay by Fionn Meade with photos excerpted from the catalogue for the Walker-organized exhibition, Merce Cunningham: Common Time, 2017.

-Four Events that Have Led to Large Discoveries (About Merce Cunningham) essay by Douglas Crimp

-John Cage’s Intensely Beautiful Love Letters to Merce Cunnigham.

cover_for_web_1.jpg-“Merce Cunningham: 65 Years” was published by aperture magazine and and updated multimedia version for iPads can be purchased on their site.

” An innovative primary resource, Merce Cunningham: 65 Years offers a vibrant and experiential account of the late choreographer, dancer, and artist’s life and work, while reflecting Cunningham’s own interest in engaging with technology—a principal motivation for creating the interactive app.

Marking its first major venture into the world of digital publishing, Aperture Foundation, in collaboration with the Merce Cunningham Trust, has created an engaging project with over forty excerpts from Cunningham’s dances (most including sound), interviews with Merce Cunningham Dance Company archivist David Vaughan, and passages from the riveting web series Mondays with Merce, as well as additional images from the last fifteen years of Cunningham’s life, and from the Legacy Tour which ended December 31, 2011. Merce Cunningham: 65 Years is more of Merce Cunningham and his extraordinary work, than simply about him.

This multimedia app combines set and costume designs, musical scores, choreographic notes, selected drawings and journal entries by Cunningham, over 200 photographs, all the essays he is known to have written, and more!”

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