‘Summerspace’ is revived this season at New York City Ballet
‘Summerspace’ is revived this season at New York City Ballet © Mko Malkhasyan

The alternately delightful and harrowing Cunningham homes in on the most urgent period in Merce Cunningham’s dance-making career, which spanned seven decades: the beginning, even before a handful of dancers agreed in 1953 to submit to Cunningham’s experiments for no money, few gigs and the audience’s likely stupefaction.

Driven by smartly chosen archival material with blessedly not a single present-day talking head, Alla Kovgan’s 90-minute film stops at 1972, once the choreographer’s future was assured.

Cunningham is dancing throughout these years. These rare clips reveal him as a satyr or changeling: lighter, faster, more expansive than anyone has a right to be. Asked by a television host what to call him if not “avant-garde choreographer”, he says, “‘A dancer’ is sufficient.”

The man is also great to listen to. He displays the unflappable mid-century ease of a matinee idol. About the tomatoes hurled in Paris on the troupe’s first international tour, in 1964, he says he wished they had thrown apples: “I was hungry.” On the controversy over his work, he cautions against generalising: “Everybody in the audience is different, so they may dislike it for different reasons.” About how he carries on under constant duress: “I really am deeply fond of dancing.” The greatest pressure is self-imposed: to resist the customs of choreography. His first foray into chance procedures was so “difficult,” he says, that he couldn’t have asked anyone but himself to attempt it.

Yet he demanded a great deal of his dancers — above all, that the work be its own reward. We hear the rumblings of their growing discontent. Choreography turns out to rival psychoanalysis for most impossible profession.

But Kovgan doesn’t just present an archival vision of a life in dance, however riveting. She also deploys Cunningham principles to restage the dances for camera. Or rather, one principle: the dissolution of the proscenium. To shrink the distance between life and art, viewer and viewed, the dances appear in colour 3D in forest and on rooftop, in garden and tunnel. Unfortunately this merely amps up the staginess, with one telling exception. In Summerspace (revived this season at New York City Ballet), the dancers blend into Robert Rauschenberg’s pointillist scrim. And the space, whose 3D heft and viscosity suggest summer’s shimmer and haze, curves around us. Cunningham would have been pleased.

★★★★☆

‘Cunningham’ will be shown at the New York and London Film Festivals, on September 29 and October 10, respectively, and on release later in the year

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