Cunningham, Alla Kovgan’s documentary about the legendary dancer and choreographer, Merce Cunningham, is a visually stunning 3D cinematic experience (click here to read my review).
I was fortunate enough to talk to Kovgan about her filmmaking journey…
What inspired you to make a film about Merce Cunningham?
AK: “I didn’t necessarily want to make a film about Merce Cunningham. He worked in space with lots of dancers moving in different directions. This is very difficult to capture on film. However, there is a lot of potential to film dance with 3D technology. The 3D camera experiences the distance between the dancers and allows you to step inside the dance.
“I went to the last performance of the Merce Cunningham Company and it hit me that 3D and Merce Cunningham could be a really good fit.”
Did you always intend to make your film like a visual piece of art and not use traditional documentary biopic tropes like, for example, talking heads?
AK: “There are lots of films about Merce Cunningham including many documentaries and the films and videos that Merce himself made. My idea was to translate his ideas into Cinema with a capital C. I wanted to create an experience of his dance through cinema - to step inside his mind through his work.
“I did not want to make a traditional biopic documentary and go through facts such as where he was born etc. I did not want dance to be used as filler in between these facts. I wanted to start with the work and I had to find a way to engage this work with cinema. The biographical details are just there to give additional insight.”
How did you access and manage the archive footage that you use in Cunningham?
AK: “I was an editor for 15 years and so am very comfortable working with archive footage. It took me a long time to get permission to make this film from the Merce Cunningham Trust. I then had access to lots of archive information. I also worked with David Vaughan [a dance archivist who also worked with Cunningham and wrote a book about him called Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years].
“Vaughan explained that there was more material in addition to what was in the archives of the Merce Cunningham Trust. He gave me access to his index cards and was very supportive of the film. Very sadly he didn’t live to see it [Vaughan died in 2017].
“There was a lot of archive material. It was an incredible journey. The film is made up of 8mm, 16mm and 35mm celluloid footage, which gives the audience both a sense of the time and also a sense of visual coherence.
“We also had thousands of photographs and lots of audio recordings. We had access to audio recorded by Merce Cunningham himself - this audio is very special.”
The audio used in Cunningham makes for some deeply poignant moments. How important was it for your film to show Cunningham’s humanity, his vulnerability and his perseverance?
AK: “Cunningham was very brave to share his work with audiences. In the end, he was a humanist and not a ‘dance snob’. He was really interested in people - despite creating work that was not, perhaps, readily accessible.
“Cunningham was so far beyond his time. Mikhail Baryshnikov once said that Cunningham created his dances and then waited for the world to catch up. No matter what happened, he always continued.
“While the bodies of composers like John Cage and artists like Robert Rauschenberg were not as affected by age, for a dancer every year matters. It is a tragedy that, at the height of his dancing abilities, Merce Cunningham did not have the opportunity to perform. This was very painful to him as dancing was so important.
“Success only came in 1964 when he was in his 40s. He was by then confronted by the limitations of his body - as we all are. This is a fact we can all identify with; we are all aging.”
Having gathered all the research material, how long did it take you to write the script for Cunningham and how long did the documentary itself take to make?
AK: “It took me a long time to write the film’s script: around one and a half years. There was approximately 60 hours of archive footage. The documentary took seven years to make but it was shot in just 18 days.”
Wow. How did you prepare to film Cunningham’s incredible dance sequences?
AK: “The process involved figuring out how to make the film in the most efficient way. I worked with my director of choreography, Jennifer Goggans, who had performed as a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) for 12 years.
“I also worked with the film’s supervising director of choreography, Robert Swinston, who joined MCDC in 1980 and became assistant to Merce Cunningham in 1992. We went through 80 of Cunningham’s dance works and cut it down to excerpts from 14 dances.
"I wanted to think about how Merce Cunningham’s dances always started with a physical question. For example, in Winterbranch he was exploring the act of falling. We had to work out how we could replicate this concept in cinema. We came up with Hitchcockian ideas and thriller tropes - and we decided to film the dance on a rooftop.
“We did this with every one of the dances and translated the idea of the dance into cinema.”
How did you choreograph these dance excerpts?
AK: “We spent lots of time scouting locations. Filming eventually took place in New York, Germany and France. Once we had our locations, we used CAD architecture software to model the choreography and then fed that information into storyboarding technology.
“We then conducted six weeks of rehearsals in 2013. From there we made virtual dances. We storyboarded every second. When it came to shooting, it was like a military campaign - everything was precisely scheduled. The dancers were on board and everybody knew what was going on.”
What were the challenges of the shoot?
AK: “We had to work with the characteristics of 3D technology. For example, in 3D it is not good to cut from a wide angle shot to a close up. If we wanted to do this we had to physically move the camera closer.
“Shooting was also affected by the physical capabilities of the dancers themselves. They would tell us how many takes they could do. As the film crew began to understand the physicality of the dances, I could feel the presence of Merce in the room. Every shot became a performance.”
Some audiences will see Cunningham in 2D. Will their experience of the film be impacted?
AK: “Cunningham is being released in 21 cinemas in the UK and in many countries around the world. I am very happy that many people will get the chance to experience the film in 3D.
“There is also a 2D version and the DVD and online versions of the documentary will be in 2D. I am more than okay with that. The 2D version feels like a different film. In 3D, the audience is stimulated by the visuals. In 2D, they remember the story. In the future, I would love a venue like a museum to show Cunningham in 3D so that more people get a chance to see it that way.”
Would you consider exploring other technologies for making films such as virtual reality?
AK: “I am a technology agnostic. I am not afraid of tech. I have worked with VR technology. I made a ten minute VR music video for a Finnish band called Devil’s Lungs. I think the idea of VR is good but the actual experience of filming in VR is frustrating. The cameras are not of high quality, the headset is not very comfortable to wear and the equipment is still very expensive. If the tech issues with the VR cameras are solved then I may consider VR filming again.”
Can you talk about what film projects you are working on next?
AK: “I have many ideas for future film projects. Three projects are currently shaping up. I would like to make a fiction film - something like Bob Fosse meets Lars von Trier. Lots of music and dance. I will probably go to Korea to do that.
"Another project is on South Korean choreographer Eun-Me Ahn - the Pina of Asia. I would like to make a fiction film based on her life in 2D or 3D. Meanwhile, I would also like to make a 3D opera movie.”
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Alla Kovgan for her time. Cunningham is out in UK cinemas from 13th March 2020. You can read my review of her film here.