Exceptional dance, of all things, has turned out to be a splendid subject for 3-D filmmaking. In 2011, Wim Wenders took on the work of dancer-choreographer Pina Bausch in the memorable “Pina” and now, from a very different filmmaker, comes “Cunningham,” a visual wonder that involves from start to finish.
The subject, as the title points out, is Merce Cunningham, the revolutionary American choreographer whose decades of work changed the very nature of dance before he died a decade ago at age 90.
Though two-thirds of the film is made up of 3-D excerpts from 14 of the 180 dances he created, “Cunningham” aims to be not only stunning, which it is, but also to serve as a kind of crash course in the man and his work.
More than that, by using all manner of visual pizzazz to creatively include archival material, including photographs, home movies and excerpts from letters and books, “Cunningham” makes good on its stated goal of doing justice to the man’s spirit of inventiveness.
Written, directed and edited by Russian-born Alla Kovgan, experienced in working with dance and cinema, this film was made with the collaboration of two long-time Cunningham associates — Robert Swinston and Jennifer Goggans — in choreography roles and was able to feature the last generation of dancers that Cunningham personally trained.
Kovgan understood that the 3-D medium, with its reliance on “multiple layers of action in relation to the setting,” would be especially good at capturing the choreographer’s work.
“Cunningham’s” range of settings, including an urban rooftop, a wooded area, an empty auditorium and a glistening subway station, so suit the works featured in Mko Malkhasyan’s cinematography that you feel immersed not distanced, totally inside what you’re watching.
The film’s best weapon, however, is Cunningham himself. Intense, committed, formidably intelligent and persuasively articulate, saying things like “dance does not refer, it is what it is” and “I don’t describe it, I do it,” Cunningham commands the film whenever he speaks.
Kovgan has chosen to chronicle Cunningham during the first 30 hardscrabble years of his career, from its 1942 beginnings to 1972, when Carolyn Brown, the last remaining member of his original company, left the troupe.
The key event of Cunningham’s life was his meeting with the composer John Cage, who became his lifelong creative and romantic partner. The pair promulgated the notion that music and dance, though performed together, should be created separately.
Heard frequently and to good effect on the soundtrack, Cage said that while most music was a balm for the ills of the world, he intended his to be “an art so bewildering you return to everyday life with great pleasure.”
Cunningham started teaching in order to have dancers who understood how his work was to be performed, and when he and Cage met the artist Robert Rauschenberg at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College in 1953, they became a creative trio.
Heard in voiceover, Rauschenberg said his work on sets and costumes was difficult because “Merce hated sets and costumes.” He also expressed an amused jealousy of Cage, because “you can’t trip on a note.”
One of the most striking works Kovgan has chosen to film is 1958’s “Summerspace,” performed against a Rauschenberg-designed pointillist backdrop that effective green-screen technology makes especially immersive.
A believer in touring, Cunningham in the early days would cram a total of nine people, including himself and Cage, into a Volkswagen bus. Once, when they stopped in a rural outpost for gas and began to stretch, they were mistaken for comedians. No, Cage replied, we’re from New York.
A turning point for the Merce Cunningham Dance company came in 1964, when they toured Europe for the first time. Though there were dissenters — Cunningham remembers wishing a thrown tomato was an apple because he was hungry — the response by audiences, especially in Britain, was overwhelmingly positive.
“Merce screwed up and they liked us,” Cage reports deadpan. “It almost ruined our reputation.”
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; Arclight Sherman Oaks