A seventy-year career, a litany of collaborators and a staunch rejector of the word ‘choreographer’, Merce Cunningham‘s history in dance is as seismic as it was inventive.

Instead of creating art to soothe, theirs was a version so intentionally discordant that it would be a relief to return to the real world.

Pushing his body in 1939 so that it could handle the endurance necessary, Cunningham’s idea of discipline was an internal agreement between physicality and commitment which never shows its face. By 1944, he would meet the man who would change his life: John Cage.

Both kindred spirits, their collaborations would take their first swings at the established notions of dance. By presenting performances where neither the routine or its accompaniment drew from each other, theirs was a high wire act for the senses. Instead of creating art to soothe, theirs was a version so intentionally discordant that it would be a relief to return to the real world. 

The reaction was stupefying disbelief. 

With nowhere left to go as a solo artist, Merce’s next logical progression was to become a teacher – but never in the conventional sense. Merce wanted dancers to be themselves first and dancers second. By removing the prevalent emphasis on excellence through competition, Merce wanted each dance to become a personal response to a situation. Further eschewing choreography’s reliance on melody, a stopwatch would be employed as a dancer’s internal metronome and stage props would be fixed to their bodies so that nothing could distract from the corporal canvases on display. 

Their lengthy rehearsals complete, the Cunningham Company would take this revolutionary approach across the US. However, in the blinding light of Cunningham’s commitment, friends, including Cage, would disappear within the cracks of dissent. Collaterally damaged, Cunningham for the first time started to look unsure – however, London would save him. Returning night after night to rave reviews, their kinetic performances of scattered intent were so unpredictable and new. As a result, the crowd never knew what to expect and in quoting Shakespeare, Cunningham would finally tease his real intent: “Ay, there’s the rub.”

Intentionally operating on a wavelength whose intention is to challenge, ‘Cunningham’ the documentary is the story of a singular vision inspired by a myriad of influences. Faithful to Merce Cunningham’s appetite for new technology, Alla Kovgan’s fusion of 3D and archival footage is a fitting rendition of her subject’s intent.

The result is neither contemporary nor classic. Instead, her ‘Cunningham’ is an invitation to respond. As esoteric as its influential source, its appreciation and enjoyment is wholly dependant on the attention you afford it. 

“I don’t describe it. I do it”

And like the man himself, so should you.