Cunningham is a biography of the US-American artist Merce Cunningham, who is caught in interview saying that he prefers to be known as “just a dancer” than as an avant-garde choreographer. Whatever. For several decades he organised a dance troupe which produced challenging performances and in which the power balance appears to have been a little skewed. But more of that later.
Cards on table time. I’m probably not the target audience, and my prime reason for choosing the film was that it was in the right time and place for other commitments. As dance is the most abstract of art forms, I often find dance – and particularly modern dance – to be difficult to grasp hold of, and writing about it does involve a large degree of dancing about architecture, so to say.
To a degree, Cunningham, the film and the man, anticipates these misgivings. When asked what his dances are about, he says they’re not about anything, they just are. To be honest, that does make a lot of sense to me, and watching some of the works, particularly the earlier ones from the 1950s, you are impressed by the grace and elegance, which have an intrinsic artistic quality like a great gymnastic performance.
Yet as time passes, and Cunningham has ambitions towards social relevance, he becomes hoist by his own petard. He states that one of his works is about violence, and the interviewer takes him up on this, asking aren’t his dances not supposed to be “about” anything?
The reply is mealy mouthed. Cunningham says that the dances are not about anything specific but are contingent on what the individual audience may see in them. Some may see the holocaust, others domestic abuse or whatever. To be honest, all that I saw was a stage full of bodies jumping up and down.
Which brings us to what is either the problem with the film, with Cunningham’s repertoire or with me depending on how you want to look at it. I am fine watching dance as an aesthetic appearance, something that just looks good. Once you start to claim that it means something profound, I just can’t make the leap between the abstract nature of dance and the reality of what its supposed to be representing.
For me at least, there was a second problem with the development of Cunningham’s work. The film shows his productions between 1942-72, with specific focus on the pieces in the fifties and the sixties. I really enjoyed the ones from the fifties, not least because of the collaboration with the composer John Cage. Cage is interviewed, saying that he didn’t want to produce music that sounds nice, and his brutal alienating music works as a great counterpoint to the dancing we are watching.
As we move into the 60s, Cage is slowly jettisoned, and the collaborators are more visual artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. These are all talented men (well at least some of them are), but they tend to feed into Cunningham’s self-indulgence. The unnecessary set decoration detract from the dancing, which is less elegant, more a group of people making random movements on stage. I don’t have the vocabulary to explain what is happening, but while I’m transfixed by the earlier dances, I’m more alienated from the later ones and they suffer from it.
Here, a little critical distance would be useful, a sense of what is happening and why its going on. Yet the interviews which we are shown are either with Cunningham himself or with obsequious dancers. Occasionally they let a few off-message comments slip, and you get the impression that Cunningham was probably a difficult person to work with, but this doesn’t really fit the narrative of a eulogy to a Great Artist.
One throwaway comment should certainly have been followed up. In the early works, Cunningham was roughly the same age as the other dancers, and they had the feeling of being all in it together, as it were. As he got older, things changed. It is not said explicitly, but presumably the power dynamic changed. They went from being a team to being the vassals who were realising his artistic vision.
In a sense, you shouldn’t judge a film for not being what you would rather it were. If you want a different film, go out and make it. But given the way this film was made, we are not allowed to reflect on the social dynamics, so our appreciation becomes almost entirely dependent on how much we like the dancing. And the longer the film went on, the less the dancing appealed to me.
I do feel better for having seen the film, and I can understand what it would bring to other people. Plus, it did raise all sorts of thoughts which I’d like to pursue. Yet I still would rather that the director had followed the threads that I found interesting. File under: valiant failures.