Docaviv: How to convey the art of dance through cinema

‘Cunningham’: From movement to movie

‘Cunningham’: From movement to movie (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Cunningham’: From movement to movie
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For the past nine months, with live performance lingering in the distant future, dance companies have struggled to find a path forward. With no certainties as to when or where audiences will be able to gather, the drive to translate live performance into digital engagements has increased exponentially. The trouble is, few know how to convey the art of dance through cinema.
This question, though new to many, has been the guiding force behind film director Alla Kovgan’s work for two decades, whose film Cunningham will be screened as part of the Docaviv Galilee Festival in Ma’alot-Tarshiha next week. Inspired by the work of prolific American choreographer Merce Cunningham, the film presents excerpts from three decades of creations in vivid, breathtaking live-action sequences interwoven with entrancing archival footage from Cunningham’s company’s early days.
“I’ve been interested in cinema and dance collaborations from the late 1990s,” says Kovgan via Zoom. Sitting in her apartment in Harlem, Kovgan, 47, speaks easily and with great interest of the decade she devoted to researching and capturing the essence of Cunningham. “I’ve been following all kinds of developments in cinema technology. When Pina [directed by Wim Wenders] came out, I could see something different being done with 3D technology. But if you asked me, 10 years prior to making it, if I would ever make a film about Merce Cunningham I would have said, ‘no way.’ He’s the kind of choreographer who has 16 dancers going in different directions and he doesn’t lend himself to cinema organically.”
In 2009, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company revealed the Legacy Plan, sending shock waves through the international dance community. Prior to his death in 2009, Cunningham meticulously laid out a blueprint for his company’s future, one in which he would no longer be present. The plan centered around a two-year world tour, making stops in cities all over the globe and culminating in a final performance in New York. After said show, the company would be disbanded. In addition, an enormous effort was made to archive all of the works, past and present, so as to preserve them.
“I was watching the last performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and it really hit me. I thought Merce and 3D could work. I wanted to tell some story of Merce’s, through his work; to translate his choreographic ideas into cinema with a capital c. It’s not about capturing dance, it was about understanding the ideas behind the work and finding a way to translate them.”
Kovgan decided to focus on the period between 1942, three years after Cunningham moved to New York City to join the Martha Graham Company, to 1972, when his company was already a staple among the American dance elite. Kovgan enlisted the expertise of former iconic company members Robert Swinston and Jennifer Goggans to comb through 80 creations made by Cunningham in that three-decade window. “In the end, we picked 14 works, most of which are iconic works, collaborations with Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns or Andy Warhol,” explains Kovgan.
Then, she set about understanding where Cunningham’s mind was when he made these works. Cunningham was known for his pure physicality, unencumbered by narrative or emotional content. The body spoke. All one needed was to come and watch to understand the work.
“We identified Merce’s ideas behind his pieces. For example, Winter Branch is about falling. Crises is about togetherness. I wanted to think about these ideas in cinema terms. If the dance is based on falling, how would cinema think about falling? In cinema you don’t have to fall, I can choreograph my camera so that you feel the sense of falling. So we had to think about the locations for shooting the live actions sections very carefully. There are no locations that are accidental. For falling, we put the dancers on a rooftop. If the concept was layering, we put them in woods.”
Throughout the process, Kovgan strove to engage as honestly as she could with Cunningham. She did not intend to make a biopic about him or get to know his personal life.
“I could not be in service to him. I am an artist making my own creation and, as such, I needed to be in a type of dialogue with him and his work. The vision I had in the beginning stayed with me the whole time. I knew I was making a 3D film, telling Merce’s story through his work. All the archive footage was meant to give insights to his background, to engage the audience and give them enough to engage with the work. I wanted this film to be for everyone,” she says. She recalls a screening done early on for 10-year-olds, a successful and memorable milestones in the process.
Currently, Kovgan is pushing the presence of dance in film further with a fiction set in Korea. In fact, she was in the midst of writing the script when she attended those final Cunningham performances in New York. Now, with Cunningham sweeping through film festivals around the world, she has returned to that project.
“We need to have more dancers in fiction cinema. Cinema is best at action and images. It’s not talking theater or a radio show. Cinema is a mythological medium; making images and transcending action.”  
For more information, visit