During the mid-1950s and early 1960s, Merce Cunningham, the most inventive and influential American choreographer of the second half of the twentieth century, took his dance company, founded in 1953 at the legendary Black Mountain College in rural North Carolina, on the road. They traveled in the maverick composer John Cage’s Volkswagen Microbus, that iconic conveyance of the counterculture. Cunningham was once asked why his company consisted of only nine people, including Cage, his artistic collaborator and life partner, and the painter Robert Rauschenberg, a former student of Cunningham’s at Black Mountain, who designed the sets and costumes. Cunningham responded that nine was the maximum number of people who could squeeze into the bus. On one occasion, stopping at a gas station in Ohio, the dancers, according to Cage, “all piled out to go to the toilets and exercise around the pumps.” Curious about the peculiar movements on display, the attendant asked if the dancers were a band of comedians. “No,” Cage answered, “we’re from New York.”
Encountering this anecdote in Cunningham, the exuberant recent film timed to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of Cunningham’s birth in 1919, you might find yourself wondering whether the gas station attendant was entirely wrong. There is a great deal of laughter in Cunningham, both on the screen and, during the two showings I attended, in the movie theater. Archival footage from the vaudevillian Antic Meet (1958) is laugh-out-loud funny. In the section titled “Room for Two,” a man with a Thonet chair strapped to his back courts a demure woman in an antique dressing gown, who appears from a door that rolls, seemingly on its own ghostly power, onto the stage. When the man kneels, she sits matter-of-factly on the chair. Everything in the pas de deux is performed deadpan, with an occasional discordant gesture, as when the man, in profile, lunges forward and opens his mouth wide, while the woman assumes a graceful arabesque.1 The score, one of Cage’s mashups of prepared piano and recorded noise, sounds like a machine shop, or a slowly moving freight train. Cunningham said Antic Meet was inspired by a line from Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov: “Let me tell you that the absurd is only too necessary on earth.” It has a clearer lineage from Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
More a dance film than a traditional documentary, Cunningham showcases the choreographer’s work, in extended dance sequences, with minimal attention to chronology or biographical detail. Directed by the Boston-based documentarian Alla Kovgan, the film was available in some theaters in 3D, and opens with a swooping aerial view of Manhattan, which zooms in on an uncanny shot of seemingly tiny dancers in multicolored leotards slowly assuming balletic poses on a rooftop. Kovgan filmed, in vivid color, outdoor reenactments of classic Cunningham…
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