Silver mylar pillows — large rectangular balloons filled with helium — engulfed the stage in choreographer Merce Cunningham’s 1968 work “RainForest.” The balloons, created by Pop artist Andy Warhol, appeared as a thick forest onstage. Some were grounded, others drifted like clouds as Cunningham’s cast of six dancers performed choreography inspired by the wildness of nature, often hitting or kicking the floating orbs.
The piece is one of Cunningham’s iconic early works. It’s also one of 14 dances reconstructed for the 3-D film “Cunningham,” which opens in theaters Friday.
Directed by Alla Kovgan, “Cunningham” traces the first 30 years of the choreographer’s seven-decade-long career — from his years as a struggling artist in New York to mainstream recognition.
Reconstructed excerpts of Cunningham’s early dances made between 1942 and 1972, performed mostly by former company members, make up the majority of the movie, including “Winterbranch,” “Summerspace” and “Crises.” The film’s narrative is told through archival recordings of Cunningham, professional and personal partner John Cage, collaborator Robert Rauschenberg and former company dancers. Archival photographs and footage from the company’s performances and rehearsals complete the picture.
“Cunningham” explores “how Merce became Merce,” Kovgan said. “People remembered Merce as an old man mostly, and everybody forgot how amazing of a dancer he was and what he went through.”
Kovgan was inspired by Wim Wenders’ 2011 3-D film about German contemporary choreographer Pina Bausch and one of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s final performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2011. (The choreographer died in 2009).
Soon after the performance, she reached out to the Merce Cunningham Trust about making a film.
Kovgan worked with the film’s directors of choreography — Jennifer Goggans, a company member for 12 years, and Robert Swinston, who worked with Cunningham for 32 years and is a trustee of the Merce Cunningham Trust. The director spent seven months searching the archives and selecting 14 dances to re-imagine for film.
Re-creating “RainForest” required multiple layers of choreography, Kovgan said.
After seeing Warhol’s “Silver Clouds” installation, which debuted in a New York gallery in 1966, Cunningham immediately became interested in “how those balloons would affect the dancers, how would they redefine the space,” Kovgan said. The choreographer was also inspired by his childhood in Centralia, Wash., and the Olympic Peninsula rain forest.
Warhol suggested that the dancers be nude for the work, but for Cunningham, that wasn’t practical. Instead, collaborator Jasper Johns cut holes in flesh-toned leotards, giving the costumes an animalistic quality. The work also featured music by experimental composer and pianist David Tudor that “evokes these nature sounds as if you were literally standing in a rain forest hearing birds and animals,” Goggans said.
To develop a concept for the shoot, Kovgan and Goggans turned to Cunningham’s ideas about dance making.
He wouldn’t say what a particular dance was about. “He always starts with a physical question or concept,” Kovgan said. “We would try to figure out how to think about those questions and concepts that he explored in cinema terms.”
Because the pillows that form a mesmerizing thicket are like additional dancers in the piece, the team decided to create a black void, keeping the focus on the balloons. “In the end, it’s all about how those pillows defined the space,” Kovgan said. “We basically came up with this idea of a black mirrored floor that would amplify the presence of the pillows.”
Most of the film was shot in Germany in May 2018, and “RainForest” was filmed over two days in a Cologne studio. It took a full day to figure out how to control the 50 balloons and the way they interacted with dancers.
Kovgan used some of the same tricks Cunningham devised for the stage.
Some balloons were filled with a mixture of helium and air so they could hover mid-air; others were grounded using a weight. Balloon wranglers — people with fans — stood on the side, guiding balloons toward the dancers.
Goggans, who also is a dancer in the film, appears in a role originally performed by Cunningham’s most celebrated co-dancer, Carolyn Brown. Suspended upside down, with her legs hooked around another dancer’s forearm, she swings wildly, hitting the silver balloons over and over.
Goggans recalled learning “RainForest” within a week or two of joining the company in 2000.
“I’ll never forget the rhythms,” she said. “I’ll never forget Merce being in the room and coaching the dancers doing his role.”
Filming the dance was another type of choreography.
Onstage, Cunningham’s work involves multiple things happening at one time, Goggans said. “As a viewer, you have a choice as to where you’re going to look.”
But film is different. “We’re basically choreographing the spectator’s eye,” Kovgan said. “We need to tell the camera what would spectators see every second.”
The director also edited “Cunningham,” which she described as as yet another type of choreography.
“You’re dealing with rhythm between two shots. You’re dealing with rhythm within the sequence and then another one within the whole piece,” she said. 3-D adds another layer of complication.
It’s why Kovgan mapped out each shot in each dance before shooting.
“When we were filming, I always felt like we went through a fiction film process,” she said. “The dance sequences were very easy to edit.”
For Goggans, who coaches companies around the world in staging Cunningham works, seeing “RainForest” and other dances come alive through film was a special experience.
Each day after shooting, “I would come back and I almost couldn’t believe it,” she said. “It was just this beautiful testament to creating magic on screen and being true to Merce’s work.”
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: Opens Friday at Laemmle Royal, ArcLight Sherman Oaks, Regal UA Long Beach, Regal Edwards Westpark, Irvine