Visual Arts Feature: Alla Kovgan, Treasure Hunter—Merce Cunningham at the ICA

Filmmaker Alla Kovgan calls Cunningham 3D a new juncture at the crossroads of dance, cinema, music, visual arts, and 3D technology—a new kind of visual experience.

A scene form Merce Cunningham

A scene form Merce Cunningham’s “Summerspace” in “Cunningham 3D” (dancers: Ashley Chen and Melissa Toogood).

By Debra Cash

Call it a treasure hunt, detective work, a modest resurrection.

In preparation for her ambitious film project, Cunningham 3D, which focuses on Merce Cunningham’s work for himself and his dance company between 1942 and 1972, filmmaker Alla Kovgan had made a list of every Cunningham work that had ever been filmed.

Painstakingly, she cross-referenced Cunningham archivist David Vaughn’s magisterial Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years with dancer Carolyn Brown’s memoir of her years dancing with the company, Chance and Circumstance.

Then she went in search of dances that the keepers of Merce Cunningham’s legacy believed had been lost to time.

Moscovite by birth, Bostonian by marriage (to sculptor and set designer Dedalus Wainwright), Harlem resident by stint of professional obligation, Alla Kovgan is a dynamo. In 2013, her proposal to create a 3D film about Merce Cunningham won the Best Pitch Award at 3D Content Financing Market, an international gathering of independent producers, distributors, and financiers. Conceptually her proposed film follows in the footsteps of Wim Wenders’s Pina, the full-length Oscar-nominated documentary about German choreographer Pina Bausch. Like Pina, Kovgan’s 3D effort was being assembled soon after the choreographer’s death (Cunningham died in 2009 at the age of 90) and with the support of his legatees. Cunningham had determined that the company had been his laboratory, and when he died, the company commenced a brief valedictory tour and disbanded, leaving trust behind to preserve and celebrate his achievements.

This fall, the fruits of Kovgan’s sleuthing will be on display as distinctive contributions to the Institute of Contemporary Art’s Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957. Former Cunningham dancer Silas Riener, will be performing Cunningham’s Changeling 18 times between mid-November and January 2016. Reconstructed under the auspices of the Cunningham Trust and Jean Freebury, the solo had not been danced since 1964.

But Kovgan was convinced that footage of Cunningham in Changeling existed in some German archive, somewhere.

In Chance and Circumstance, dancer Carolyn Brown had written that the touring Cunningham company had filmed in Hamburg for two days in October, 1958,

not the slapdash ten-minute quickie we’d experienced in Brussels, but a deadly-serious variety, the sort Germans are so very good at, with hours of rehearsals consisting of continuous stops and starts, space changes, lighting adjustments, camera angles revised, endless takes and retakes. On the first day, we did a complete run-through of our solo and duet repertory so that the television producer could select the pieces he thought most suitable for filming. For much of the day I was able to sit on the sidelines and watch the filming of Merce’s solo Changeling. At least fifteen men—directors, technicians, stagehands—rushed around plotting and scheming, shouting, continually requesting that Merce do the dance again. And again. And still again. I kept waiting for Merce to explode with exasperation. But he fooled me. “It’s just like a Mack Sennett comedy,” he laughed. He was having the time of his life. The wild mayhem surging around him never disturbed his concentration. He danced—each time—like a devil possessed, full-out, never stinting, always giving a total performance whether it was the first or the fifteenth time through.

“I went on this hunt and told everyone ‘I am making this film and I would like to find out if you have this material,'” Kovgan explains. Eventually, it occurred to her that some of the footage might be unmarked. Lo and behold, a canister with a film print incongruously labeled as “ballet” turned out to contain a pristine record of several Cunningham dances. One of the dances, Changeling, was the fifth solo work Cunningham had created using chance principles, tossing coins in order to determine the sequence of movements. It was part of a trilogy set to piano music by Christian Wolff (with Untitled Solo and Lavish Escapade, both of which he had performed at Black Mountain College).

The TV archive had already transferred the footage to a DVD by the time Kovgan arrived to Germany. “There was a moment when I couldn’t believe it. I remember holding it in my hands and thinking it’s not possible. I’d read so much about this, and seen very early [Cunningham performances on film] at Jacob’s Pillow. But this was so different than anything I saw from that era.”

Changeling and Cunningham’s other solos of the late 1950s, Kovgan says, appear to be psychological self-investigation for those who have the ability to see past their cool exterior. While Cunningham railed against theatricality in his later writings and commentary, Kovgan finds the solo rich in expressionist, animalist material.

“You feel a lot of pain in the Changeling solo, although it’s always masked,” she says. “When I was doing research for my film, my most moving discovery was that Merce had such an incredibly strong spirit to persevere. At the height of his physical abilities, he did not perform much. There was this one year when he only had nine performances. And yet to be on stage had meant everything to him. And perhaps, anguish about this comes across in his solos. When his world triumph came during the tour of 1964, he was already 45 years old. I don’t think that aging affected the art practices of his friends and collaborators John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. But Merce had to constantly deal with his body and reinvent himself.'”

Kovgan’s work on Cunningham has unearthed other rarely seen treasures from film archives around the world. While the finished film, slated for a 2017 release, will include historical footage, it’s the ability of 3D to allow audiences to engage with Cunningham’s explorations in space and time that excites her most. “Merce staged a series of famous photographs of Summerspace by dropping Rauschenberg’s canvas on both the wall and the floor so it completely surrounded the dancers. His dancers were being presented in an immersive environment and what is more immersive than 3D cinema?” A standalone, 2 1/2 minute loop of Kovgan’s 3-D installation for Summerspace, based on original decor now held by the Walker Art Center, has just been unveiled as part of Leap Before You Look. She calls this a new juncture at the crossroads of dance, cinema, music, visual arts, and 3D technology: a new kind of visual experience. And she was delighted when visitors to the museum first donned their 3D glasses to “enter” that virtual environment.

3D is perfect for Cunningham’s work, Kovgan says, even as it calls for exquisitely detailed storyboarding and meticulous camera work. “Perceptually and neurologically it takes more time to absorb information watching 3D. It makes you slow down and it takes a second and a half longer to perceive anything. You can’t just walk by it. That may be just the time you need to perceive Merce’s dances on screen.”

Debra Cash, a founding contributor to The Arts Fuse, is executive director of Boston Dance Alliance.

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