Arts Festival

The ecstacy of daily struggle



DANCE revolutionary: Merce Cunningham. Photograph courtesy

HE REFUSED TO be known as ‘avant-garde’, but set fire to every dance cliché and rule that you can think of, in his outstanding and bold repertoire, answerable to no one. This was Merce Cunningham, celebrated in Alla Kovgan’s beautiful film, Cunningham, which features on this year’s Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival, available online from 20 until 30 August 2020. Because of the ongoing pandemic, access to this festival is free of charge.

More than a conventional biopic, this work offers potent insight into the difficulty of being an artist, not one who kow-tows to things that refer to other things, but one who makes art with the instrument of his own body, listening to his instincts. Touching on the financial hardships which Cunningham’s company faced over the years, and their decision to tour America in their Volkswagen bus, the film speaks of the important collaboration between Cunningham and composer John Cage – and their friendship and brief association with Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg.

If you are not a contemporary dance/performance art enthusiast, however, you may find the minimalist music which thinks about the nature of noise and silence, as less than incendiary. You may not get the in-house jokes of movement and poetry. But this is more than just a portrait of an era. It’s about scratchy and magnificent chalk drawings which are animated, and Russian language learnt on the fly. It’s about knitting your own costumes and collaboration pushed to its depths.

But if you are a fan of performance, this is the kind of dance bravery which fuelled the kind of work made by South African choreographers of the ilk of Sylvia Glasser, Robyn Orlin, Elu and Sello Pesa, to name but a few, and which offers contemplative dialogue with what dance might actually be. And it’s very far from common easy rhythms.

Like the underlying ethos that informs Steven Cohen’s important work, Put Your Heart Under Your Feet … And Walk, the central thread tying this film together is Cunningham’s assertion that art is difficult, and the artist, having made one thing, must focus all their energy on making again. It’s the lesson of art that is often omitted from learning contexts, but the most difficult of all: keep on keeping on.

Cunningham does not paint a predictable picture of the force of nature that was Cunningham. There are no baby photos or class pics with one of the boys highlighted, here. There is no agonising over who his parents were or the kind of challenges he faced growing to maturity. We know that he made over 180 works and continued working until his death in 2009 at the age of 90. We hear his voice, see his energy, understand the simplicity of his focus – and also some of its complexity. It’s a fantastic portrait, but not necessary for every viewer.

  • Cunningham is written and directed by Alla Kovgan. It features creative input by Jennifer Goggans and Robert Swinston (director of choreography), Mko Malkhasyan (photography), Alla Kovgan and Andrew Bird (editing), Francis Wargnier (sound and mix) and Volker Bertelmann (music). It features on the Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival which runs from 20-30 August 2020, and this year is accessible online and without charge.

2 replies »

  1. Thanks for insightful this review Robyn. I look forward to seeing the film. Best wishes, Sylvia

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