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'Cunningham' movie leaves iconic dancer’s work open to interpretation

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Merce Cunningham performs “Summerspace.”
Merce Cunningham (standing at the rear of the group with arms outstretched) performs “Summerspace” with his company. The pointillist set was created by Robert Rauschenberg who was the company’s stage manager at the time. The set is now in the collection of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Robert Rutledge | Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

For decades, choreographer Merce Cunningham created dances that delighted and mystified audiences. A new movie with Minnesota connections called “Cunningham” doesn't set out to clear up all those mysteries. Rather, its creators hope to make viewers more comfortable about just enjoying the beauty of the dance.

Cunningham danced and created a huge number of pieces between the 1940s and his death in 2009. But he didn't like to attach meaning to his work.

"We don't interpret something, we present something," he says in the film. "We do something and any kind of interpretation is left up to anybody looking at it in the audience.”

A Cunningham dance was precise and often challenging to dancers and audiences.

In fact, as time went on he and his collaborator, and life partner, the composer John Cage often developed work using coin tosses or dice to decide what should come next. Dancers moved to a tempo set with a stopwatch, and often didn’t hear the music played during a performance until opening night. In the film, Cunningham says some loved it and many didn't.

"All the way from absolute stupefaction to people liking it very much," he responds to a question.

And this was the challenge Minneapolis producer Kelly Gilpatrick and her collaborators decided to accept when they made “Cunningham.”

"The more we dug into his story as a struggling artist in New York during the postwar times, and his collaborations with John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg, that really fueled what became a passion project for us all," she said.

Composer John Cage, dancer Merce Cunningham, painter Robert Rauschenberg.
Composer John Cage, dancer Merce Cunningham (seated) and painter Robert Rauschenberg in a scene from “Cunningham.” The new documentary examines the early work by Cunningham who was at the forefront of U.S. dance for decades from the 1940s. The film blends archive material with new performances of Cunningham’s work.
Douglas Jeffrey | Courtesy of Magnolia Films

Gilpatrick joined a team led by Russian director Alla Kovgan who has worked for two decades with dance and film.

"Alla's vision was never to explain him and his work and necessarily who he was as a person, but really to honor him and his choices, his work, his artistry," Gilpatrick said.

Much of the documentary is made up of extracts from dances specially performed for the cameras. They are gorgeous, and show the dances in ways impossible to see on stage.

Some are done in theaters, but many are set in unusual spots: one deep in a forest, another in a tiled tunnel and third where the brightly clad dancers move across the roof of an oceanside high-rise. It's shot from high in the air above, which Gilpatrick believes captures the sense of the dance.

"A lot of it kind of dealt with this feeling of falling," she said. "And so you can see just with the camera angles and being on the rooftop and creating those heights you got that sense of falling without explaining it to the viewer."

In contrast, some of the other performances are shot close up, so close the viewer hears dancers gasping for breath and feet pounding the floor. The new material is woven through with archive footage of Cunningham and Cage working over the years.

At one point, Cunningham asked a friend, aspiring painter Robert Rauschenberg, to become the company's stage manager.

"Bob Rauschenberg described it once: he said we only have two things in common, our ideas and our poverty," Cunningham says in the film. "I thought that was a marvelous description, and it brought us together."

Rauschenberg’s painted sets and costumes added to the experience. His pictures now sell for millions, but after each show they strapped the canvases he painted for the company on the roof of their touring van, open to the weather.

Some of those sets are now in the collection at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Cunningham had a long relationship with the Walker and with Minnesota. Gilpatrick who works for the Periscope Production company in Minneapolis says they collaborated with the Walker in making the film. Also several local film organizations supported the movie.

Gilpatrick will introduce the screening Friday night at the Uptown Theater in Minneapolis. She describes working on the film as an art history lesson, and she hopes the film will help people appreciate what Cunningham's did.

"It's about just taking in the work that he has created, the work that we've created, and enjoying that and feeling that,” she said. “And that's all I can hope for all the communities I hope will see the film."

The film was shot in both 2D and 3D. The version being shown this week is 2D, but Gilpatrick says she hopes in time to offer a 3D version to Minnesota audiences.