Kovgan’s Cunningham Comes Full Circle to Connecticut College

Credit: MKO Malkshasyan


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Cunningham, a 2019 biopic by Alla Kovgan about choreographer Merce Cunningham, had a special screening on Saturday in Evans Hall at Connecticut College in New London.

Kovgan, who has on hand to introduce the film along with Robert Richter, director of arts programming at Connecticut College, noted the full-circle nature of the screening — several Cunningham pieces included in the film were premiered in Palmer Auditorium at Connecticut College, site of the American Dance Festival from 1948-1977.

An iconoclastic choreographer and revered figure in the field of contemporary dance, Cunningham is also something of a con artist, flatly denying he was intending any meaning in a vast 70-year trove of vibrant, three-dimensional movement, works of beauty where “any movement is valid.”

Carolyn Brown, Cunningham’s primary duet partner in his first works, is quoted in the film calling his bluff.

“People take Merce at his word. They absolutely believe him that it’s only steps that he’s putting on the stage, and it isn’t true.”

Kovgan, in her own way, takes Cunningham to task. She unearths rich meaning in his works, and she does it by using his own method: “The way to do it is to do it.”

In Cunningham, Kovgan locates his dances in site-specific environments of glorious, dramatic resonance. They point to the dancers’ lives and the upheaval of the times. They arrive in the present with powerful and sometimes painful immediacy.

In Kovgan’s rendering of Cunningham’s Winterbranch from 1964, a bound hooded man writhes across the rooftop of a building in a bleak, urban setting, as sirens wail continuously in the backdrop. A woman stands poised on the edge, which drops away to deserted city blocks and a clanging subway train. The dire environment suggests our present-day, and the one in which the piece was originally made – an America shattered by social conflict and violence.

The entire film is constructed of two interwoven sets of footage.

One is archival material from Cunningham’s early period, 1942-1972. In black and white film and photographs, letters and journals, Kovgan delves into Cunningham’s creative process with his first company of dancers: Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, Barbara Dilley, Valda Setterfeld, Gus Solomons, Jr., Marianne Preger-Simon, and Sandra Neals. Most of them became esteemed dance teachers and choreographers in their own right, and Kovgan makes notable choices to highlight the women’s voices as part of the narration.

In the other set of footage, Kovgan takes excerpts from fourteen of Cunningham’s early dances; she reimagines them in particular, colorful locales around the world, something Cunningham did to some degree in his EVENTS. But Cunningham pushes this idea to an entirely new level. Kovgan lofts the dances into 3D filming, shoots in breath-taking 360-degree single takes, all the while paying heed to Cunningham’s luxurious and peculiar sense of time. Jennifer Goggans and Robert Swinston, former assistants to Cunningham and choreographic directors on the film, bring meaning to the film from their archival research and discussion. The beauty of Cunningham’s work rendered in this way is almost dizzying, as well as the fact that it is performed by the last generation of Cunningham dancers.

An excerpt of Cunningham’s Antic Meet from 1958 is filmed on a precise square of open-air stage in the courtyard of Schloss Platz in Stuttgart, on what looks like a warm summer morning. The solo male figure, originally danced by Cunningham in a knit sweater costume with four or five arms, struggles in trying to find his arms’ way out of the sleeves. His head and body fling in the effort. Meanwhile, female dancers wearing exaggerated flounces – like women with ten breasts each bobbing around their centers – dance in courtly manner around him. He stumbles, maneuvering to find his own center. Tourists and bystanders gather around the perimeter, watching with gaping mouths this strange apparition of a dance.

The entire scene suggests that Cunningham’s inner struggles — perhaps with his own artistic idiosyncrasies, with his identity, or with his role as leader of a band of mostly female dancers —  happened on a “stage of the mind” that loomed formidably and uncomfortably exposed at times.

One of the joys of the film is seeing Cunningham dancing as a young man. It is a revelation. Another is recognizing a rather normal early progression of a choreographic genius. Personal solos morphed into group works with the solo figure posited against a group; the excerpt of Antic Meet calls to mind Martha Graham’s Heretic. Septet from 1953 looks like studies in coupled folk dance. Suite for Five from 1956 blasts open the couple-space, the performing space and sense of directionality; it is shot in a gleaming white post-modern airport hangar. In another section of Antic Meet, collaborating with then equally unknown and penniless artist Robert Rauschenberg, Cunningham’s explores “dancing with things” — chairs, doors, and other objects.

Cunningham worked with collaborators — including Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein — in a kind of mutually agreed-upon anarchy: “You do your thing and I’ll do mine.” Dance, music, set, and costumes occupied time and space, together, without any attempt to organize the audience takeaway. For Cunningham, his dancers and designers, it was a time of endless devotion to experiment, rehearsal, effort, sweat, meals together, and seats shared on the VW tour bus.

Intrinsic to the endeavor was Cunningham’s collaborator and partner John Cage. In the midst of conducting his own revolutionary work, Cage managed to act as driver, cook, and stage-mother for the company. In the backdrop, Cunningham and Cage quietly conducted one of the great love affairs in art, immortalized in letters written to Cunningham by Cage.

Cunningham made radical, lasting works of art not through any particular formula. Good artists are lured by their materials and their work. And in making their art they pull the universe towards them with irresistible seduction.

This is why the world needs artists right now. Alla Kovgan bends Cunningham around her own particular, daring view of him in this film. It makes for very good art.

Clare Byrne is a dancer-and-choreographer-turned-songwriter who has performed and taught in New York City and environs, Burlington, VT, and around the world. In addition to songwriting via guitar, harmonica and piano, her multi-art projects have included Weekly Rites, an improvisational dance blog, and The Poor Sister Clares Traveling Dancing Monk Show, an experiment in gospel dance and gardening in Vermont.