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ScreenTalks Archive: Cunningham

An image of free dancers, in a row one after each other directly infront of the camera with different hand and arms positions
10 Dec 2021

This week, New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay, dancer and choreographer, Dame Siobhan Davies, Radiohead drummer and musician Philip Selway, and director Alla Kovgan about Kovgan’s amazing 3D documentary, Cunningham.

Capturing the work of renowned and hugely influential choreographer Merce Cunningham (1919–2009) was no easy talk. But director Alla Kovgan spent years thinking about how to create Cinema – with a capital C – with the extraordinary challenge of multiple dancers, and finding extraordinary locations after the dream of shooting entirely in New York wasn’t possible. It’s a fascinating conversation about the relationship of four different people’s very different relationship to Cunningham’s work, and about how you do make a film about the near unfilmable. 

ScreenTalks Archive podcast is presented by Ellen E Jones and produced by Jane Long for Loftus Media.

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Ellen E Jones: Welcome to the Barbican ScreenTalks Archive podcast. Every episode, we reach back into the Barbican's extensive collection of live q&a recordings to bring you an illuminating conversation about film. This time though, we're perfectly poised in first position at the intersection between cinema and another art form. 

That's because we're revisiting the 2019 feature Cunningham, a part-biopic, part- experimental dance film, all about the legendary American choreographer, Merce Cunningham. Leading the discussion is former New York Times dance critic and Cunningham biographer Alastair Macauley. He speaks primarily with the film's director, Moscow born dance specialist Alla Kovgan. But you'll also be hearing from two of Cunningham's collaborators, dancer and choreographer Dame Siobhan Davies, also known as Sue, and composer and Radiohead drummer Philip Selway. 

These four first offer up their different perspectives on both Cunningham the film, and Cunningham the man. Then Kovgan addresses the particular challenges of making her well received film. How is it possible to contain the uncontainable choreography within the frame of a film camera? How long can a single shot last when the dancers have no music to help them time their movement? Often the answer to these dilemmas seems to be another question. What would Merce Cunningham have done? 

Sometimes, though Kovgan had no choice but to deviate from Cunningham's template, most notably in her choice of locations and use of 3D viewing technology. She discusses here how she landed upon surprising new settings or some of Cunningham's most famous works. You'll also hear reference to such notable members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company as Viola Farber, Valda Setterfield and Carolyn Brown, thanks to Kovgan's extensive research all are present in the form of archival footage used in the film. I'm Ellen E Jones, and this is Barbican ScreenTalks on Cunningham. 

Alastair Macaulay: Evening I'm Alastair Macaulay. At the far end is Alla Kovgan, our director, our star, Philip Selway next to her and Sue Siobhan Davis here. Alla is the director, the originator and I was fascinated by how many times your name occurs in different capacities and credits. This is a labour of love, I know something of how much work you've done over the years. 

Some of the rare films that you're seeing clips of there are ones that people thought long lost and Alla was going through archives in Europe and simply found a rare film, for example, of mass dancing, his great solos, Changeling, made in 1957, filmed in 1958. Everybody thought it had been lost for 50 years, you found it in about 2014, 15. Sue Davis is here because when she was falling in love with dance, she saw Merce Cunningham and Company I think 1969, 1970? 1970 Richard Alston says. They fell in love with Merce Cunningham's work at the same time. 

And moving forward 49 years, Sue was one of the dancers who performed at the Barbican in Night of 100 Solos by Merce Cunningham on April 16 last year for Cunningham's centenary. Philip was with Radiohead, which collaborated with Merce Cunningham in Split Sides, a Merce Cunningham work 2003 and has now done music for the rumba Cunningham event. Can we begin therefore chronologically at the end - and Philip, what is it like looking at Merce from your much more recent perspective? 

Philip Selway: Well, the piece that you mentioned, Split Sides, that was a piece that was written and performed for his 80th birthday. So it was a piece that we did with another band called Sigur Rós. And it was at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] in Brooklyn. And I think it's fair to say he had a fairly established career by that point already. And you come into those projects, and you're very aware of, well from a musician's point of view, that kind of heritage that's there, that incredible creativity and bravery in the composition there. And then you have to kind of try and block that out. Or else that would just be a rabbit in headlights with that. 

I think for me being, at this stage and then having kind of posthumously collaborated with Merce Cunningham, I think it's incredible that actually, to have left that kind of framework, that kind of environment where I mean, I think of myself as being generally quite a timid person, but actually having that opportunity creatively to really stretch yourself, to really very much go out of your comfort zone, to abstract what you're doing. And kind of actually trying to, in a very supportive environment, tap into the spiky side of yourself. And it's just such an incredible legacy to actually draw upon and to respond to as well. 

AM: Well, thank you. So your trajectory of watching versus career is, in a way, the longest of us up here. What's it like watching this, taking you back before you began? 

Siobhan Davies: It's enormous. Thank you, Alla, huge thank you, because it's truly here in a large scale. So there was a real enjoyment and seeing the figures large, because normally, one sees them quite small on stage, unless, and I had the privilege of seeing them work in studios, and close up or in class. 

So the presence of having the film, the ambition of having the film, the enormity of it, gives Merce and his dancers, a place they anyhow deserve, but it's an extra place for them to be in existence of. I couldn't help but be moved by all of the, what I call the scratch tapes, the documentary part, because those were dancers that I knew and was nervous of. I was taught by Viola Farber, and I can remember that class in my body to this day. And that's, that's something and then to see her and Valda, and I still am in touch with Valda. Carolyn was too scared, but Alla says she has seen the movie now. 

And then, to some extent, see, Merce in his context of New York. And I don't think I've experienced that so much, because on street level, New York has this mess and glory. And then suddenly, you give us the perspective of this entire city and the world which he travelled. And a sense of place, which sometimes I found shocking. Sometimes I found the furniture of the scenes, I would go 'hold on, wait a moment, I have to readdress my sense of Merce, Merce-ness'. On the other hand, in terms of a cinematic placement of it, and a way of involving an audience that doesn't know the things that we know, and you place that in a sense of largesse and generosity, and dynamics, and then you see the present dancers at work. So it's a sort of huge 360 degree experience for somebody like me. 

AM: Alla, for those who don't know Merce's work as well as us four, am I right in saying that, where possible you've always used the original costumes, and quite often you've used the original music, sometimes using other sound around it, but where you've been freest and God knows you've done - I'm working on a Cunningham biography - and I know you found material I never knew. So I take my hat off again and again and again. But where you are freest is often in location. 

And you take these dances and put them where Merce never dreamt, maybe of putting them and the one that knocks me out the most is Winterbranch, which you put out in the open air and we don't know where we are. You're on the dam at the beginning, but then we realise we're by a train line going to New York from Brooklyn. Tell us where you got these ideas from? What encouraged you to take these liberties? 

Alla Kovgan: Well, I mean, the idea came from...cinema. In general, I always say I never want to make a film about Merce Cunningham because he's a kind of choreographer who thinks in space, he has sixteen people go in different directions, and you cannot make a single shot. No chance. But when I saw the Wim Wenders film, actually Pina, you know Wim Wenders also has seen the movie now, which is interesting. You know, I felt that 3D has some potential with dance that no other medium had, because you could actually experience the distance between people, you could get very close to people. So that's where the impetus came. 

It came from 3D actually, in trying and then I saw it at BAM at the last performances, and I felt okay, maybe Merce in 3D can be really good fit, because I feel like the best 3D film will be done that have no cuts at all. And that's so beautiful for the dancers, they can actually dance. And the idea was really not to capture dance in immersive dances, but really make cinema translate his ideas into cinema with capital C. And so once you start thinking about dance in cinema terms, you know, cinema does not think in stages, theatrical stages of things and places and spaces. 

And I thought that works with Merce too because he tried to escape stage for a very long time, he always said he choreographed so that you could see that his dance from all different perspectives. It doesn't have to be on the proscenium. And as soon as he got the chance, he went up and made 700 events all around the world that mostly, some of them were performed on stage later on. But at the beginning, it was all these locations. So I felt there's freedom in that. 

And so the way we worked: once we picked 14 dancers out of 80, that he made between 1942 and 1972, the process took about seven and a half months to do that with Robert Swinston who work with Merce for 32 years and Jennifer Goggans was there for 12. We basically sort of identified the questions and concepts behind each dance that Merce explored, and then we would think about them in cinema terms. So if it's Winterbranch, as you mentioned it's dance space, the action of falling, how would cinema think about falling? And here you go vertigo, you know, heights...cinema is all about making illusions, you don't have to have to fall to experience the danger of falling. 

So you start thinking that way, and, and that's how locations start emerging. So that's how the Winterbranch location, the rooftop: it's actually not a rooftop. It's actually in Germany, not New York. But you're talking about illusions, right? So you start creating cinema. And that's how, and you go for it, you have to kind of make decision and you have to go for it. Of course, I looked at probably 28 rooftops and places and that's a massive process, because you are setting something up, you take responsibility for creating something that wasn't there. But at the same time, you know, I've tried to look at all kinds of versions of Winterbranch. Every one that is staged is incredibly dark on video, you cannot catch anything. Because it's black. When Black people are wearing black costumes, it's absolutely like darkness. It's, there's some lights, but it's kind of spooky and crazy. And one thing is fully I try not to dramatise anything. I just tried to marry Merce's formal ideas with formal cinema ideas. 

So it's just about folding. It's not about drama about falling, you know? So that's how we went about it. If it's Rune, it's about layering. You know, he first time he worked with layers, people and foreground, middle ground, background. So I think okay, well, maybe we can take woods, because actually, there's a lot of layers, and we can make dances, is another layer in the woods. Maybe we could have taken some plants? I don't know, with metal rods, and others also layers, but it didn't feel right, I guess. So that's how we went, we basically tried to make 14 different movies, and every single one was coming from a kind of a formal idea he explored, physical idea or concept. 

AM:  Philip, again, what is it like looking at the oldest material for you here? So way before your time. 

PS: Yeah, it still feels very vital. Looking back at it, it doesn't actually have a sense of looking back at it, it still feels very inspiring at this point as well. For the rumba Cunningham event, I mean, they were drawing on their repertoire. So I'm not sure, you'd have to ask Jeannie Steele, who is here. What would the earliest piece have been in that event? But you know, that event covered quite a period in his choreography. But yeah, I still find it very challenging looking at those earlier pieces. 

AM: When you're composing for a Merce event today and you know that you're covering material that goes from maybe as back as far back as 1953, up to something made this century, does that affect your musical choice? 

PS: No. I think you know, when we were because the brief for the Rambert event was to write an hour's worth of music that would work over two spaces. And kind of the only criteria within that were not to have anything with too strong a pulse or groove, which as a drummer is, can be a bit of anathema to me at points. 

But within that though, I worked with two other musicians, collaborated with two other musicians, Quinta and Adem Ilhan. And I think we tried to tap into those kind of chance strategies in writing, we had three weeks to write it. We didn't have any material when we came in to write it. And it was just through each piece that we did, it was almost a case of, you know, we set ourselves a task and have these parameters in there and trying to allow further happy accidents in that process. 

And so I think that's what drove the kind of compositional side of it. And actually, it was completely separate to the dance until the dress rehearsal. You know, Jeannie hadn't heard any of the the score, nor had anybody at Rambert and so that was quite a petrifying experience during that dress rehearsal. That's where it all came together. 

And that's where you have these distinct, very distinct elements, you know, with the Cunningham choreography, the stage design and costumes and Gerhard Richter. And then the music that we put together, they all work as very separate entities, and you bring them together. And they have this new dialogue, which actually you can plan for. 

AM: I'm glad you were petrified because generations of Cunningham dancers were petrified, not knowing what it was going to sound like, because they didn't sue you. The film ends quite strongly on the change of generation that up to about 1972, the dancers had been able to go out for coffee with Merce and so forth. Now there was a distant generation. Did you feel that, you knew Viola Farber, you worked with Carolyn and observed her close, you saw Merce dancing a lot. You've seen also all these younger dancers who are in this film. How big is the generational change for you? And because you are now Cunningham dancer in 2019. 

SD: I can wear the badge! It's quite hard, there's maybe there is this strange tradition that choreographers get older and dancers partly because of their bodies, and because of the capacity to tour so much remain within a certain generation. And the choreographer, inevitably normally gets older. 

So I think every choreographer can have this moment in which the original company falls away, and new dancers come in. I just got the impression from him all the time, that he loves dancing, and he loves dancers. So he needs - in a selfish as well as a generous way - he needs that food. And he needs that, I'm going to use the word material for a little bit, although I think he was always aware of the people doing the work. 

I think, when I worked on the Night of 100 Solos, we were taught by dancers who'd been in the company, and they consistently said, don't worry about perfection, do the movement. If you are not so happy with it, just move to the next, just move to the next. And you will constantly be in a state of action and doing. And I hear him say that in the film. And I feel 

AM: And Viola says it beautifully too. 

SD: So there's generations of dancers, I don't know how many dancers he's worked with, have learnt this thing about being in the moment, making the attempt, do not worry about failure. Be there, be there, be there. And it doesn't it doesn't matter which generation does it. I think they've all, you'll see the line of them doing that right across from then till now. And that's powerful. 

AM: Yeah. Alla, tell us more about these amazing locations that you chose. And it's so startling to me, who knows Suite for Five, to see it set in a park and then suddenly see a pool beneath that. Alla Kovgan Yeah, so it's interesting. We shot this movie in 18 days. It took seven years. Because we really wanted to shoot this in New York City. I mean, there was this big kind of attempt to try to make the film in New York. And when we realised we couldn't, we did what Merce would do: we would say yes to anything.

 You know, that means it's honest. We could, so we made the movie European. Thank you, Dogwoof. You're amazing to come in board. But yeah, a lot of money came from Germany. And so we had to move to Germany and start over from, we travelled from Hamburg to Stuttgart if you know geography, it's really from north to down south. And we were now on bus of six weeks. So 15 days were shot in Germany, two days in France, and then one day in New York City. And we basically kind of went on a scavenger hunt again, very much driven by Merce's ideas about every single place. 

So the first shot is Elbe tunnel, and Elbe and Hamburg and so on. So the way we worked is that once we actually chose the location, specifically what you're referring to Suite for Five - We actually split it, we have Suites for Two and then Suite for Five. And primarily because we really wanted to show sort of the evolution of - if you actually follow the film, we start with solos and then we have a duet, the Suite for Two, and then Suite for Five. I mean, it's just Septet and Suite for Five. So the dances are pretty much in chronological order. Events a little bit not, but most of them. 

There's first dance, first concert, beginning of the company World Tour, everybody left. So that's kind of the structure but the main thing about this Suite for Two, which is at the point this dance is about sort of infinity, and I think you actually yourself mentioned that you don't put them in that box, you know, you have to. It's about infinity, right. But the interesting part where I really was looking for a space that would communicate that idea, and when I saw this pond, it's actually a very narrow pond, but we have wide angle lens there. So you can have an illusion of a wide one. 

So sometimes you have to look at those locations, not what you see physically, what they can do for cinema again, and the infinity was that pond for me. And there's a really great story about this particular situation, because Robert was there and we had a heated discussion about what's better to come to start from the dances and go to the pond, or to start from the pond and go to the dances. 

Because actually, from a cinema point of view, it's much better to reveal the space, but from the dance point of view is much better to see the dances at the end. So that's what you arrive to the body, you know. And so Robert said, You know what, I just was thinking, he's just gonna get very quiet. And he said, 'If Merce had been alive, he would have done both, and used both.' So that's how we did it. Sometimes things like that happen. So we shot it both ways. And we used it both ways. It's exactly the same movement. So it was an amazing kind of journey. But once we choose the location, we have to model it in the architecture programme, literally. And then we put that model in the storyboarding software. 

And we did six weeks of rehearsal in 2013, with dances, so we had a lot of footage that with my director of photography, just sort of being there for six weeks with them, kind of at the end of each day for a few hours and looking for different shots. And how do you look at the movement discussing where Rob and Jennifer are all the time, so we had all that footage, but we shot the movie only in 2018. 

So it's like five years later, she was worried that we wouldn't have any dancers to shoot with, they all moved on, you know, the company closed December 31 2011. They had their life, some of them are not dancing. But the troopers they are, once they learned that we're gonna do this, they all went back to class, and they were in class for five months, getting back into that kind of work, which was incredibly moving to me. But anyway, so basically, we would then take those locations into the storyboarding software. And then we would create virtual dances in the software, and would have all these cranes and steady cameras, everything, and basically choreograph the camera inside the programme, and then print out those storyboards. 

So on the day of the shoot, pretty much everything was known, you know, everybody was there. And it was like a joke, it was a military regime, because the clock was ticking and ticking and ticking and ticking. And it just felt, I mean, that's also interesting how like the dance world and film world all of a sudden start crossing at that moment, because you know, the responsibility that the film people start feeling is high, because film people in, you know, just you light, everybody waits, you know, then finally, we shoot for five minutes, and everybody waits again, you know, we have to change him, but he had nothing was it was like a machine. I mean, everybody was sort of working together, there was this kind of spirit that every shot was like a performance, you know, so that every shot was dead silence. And we worked with some of the Pina people who worked on the Pina Bausch film. And I mean, they constantly complain that there's no music, and I couldn't say why. 

Why is it music? Well, because Pina was shot to music, you know, so every time they learned all the audio cues, and they would follow them all - Stravinsky goes up, the camera goes up - you know, like, you know, but here you had to actually learn the movement. And their attention span is about 45 seconds. No they're great people, I mean, I love my crew. And look, I mean, I'm very moved by them. But, but it's interesting, because people don't know how to look at dance, and they cannot learn it. I mean, you know, that's normal people I'm talking about, and they had this incredible difficulty, no matter we can be whispering, I mean, they know what they have to do, but they just forgot, you know, all the time. So in the past, we learned that, we shot some spaces, it was in our past. So we had to kind of trick them with different techniques to actually have longer shots like Winterbranch is three minutes shot, you know, for instance, but to have to count, we have to use all kinds of ways to keep the shots going. So that was a kind of hardest thing to align the choreography of the camera and choreography of the dance. 

AM: That three-minute shot that you do of Winterbranch. And the most breath-taking moment because we've really been watching quite a lot. We're getting deep into Winterbranch and suddenly Silas Riener looms interview half in shadow, and then we realise he's carrying a horizontal body right across the street. That to me is the most breath-taking moment. I'm going to ask if there's a question from the floor. And I'm going to ask you to if you want to ask a question. 

I’ve simply got one more for Alla, which is simply because you ended in 1972, one of the aspects of Merce you don't investigate is Merce the filmmaker, I presume, though you spent quite some time looking at the way he used the camera, because I think I spot quite a lot of his techniques. 

AK: You know, I try not to. I was coming from cinema. I actually think never, Merce never engaged with cinema, you know, he was interested in how to look at dance through the lens of the camera. But I never think he was thinking that I'm going to just make a film for big screen. I think he wanted to, I mean, some people told me that he would have loved to do that, but he never quite. So he a lot of his work is he's looking at the movement. You know, that's the focus, you know, and I think one of the reasons also, I want to end in 72, because I feel like there's so much work he created after 72 himself. 

And there's this whole body of work that he made, but I didn't really try to just go from his ideas, like his ideas of the dances rather than how he was looking at them himself. So that was, you know, just in terms of his work. I mean, I've seen Charlie's work, of course, I mean, I brought him to Russia, and you know, all kinds of things. But you know, and I always at the time, I never imagined I'm going to do this. So it's an interesting journey. 

AM: When Alla says, Charlie, that's Charlie Atlas, who worked with Merce on a series of amazing films between mid 70s and 83. Shall we take one from the floor, from front row. 

AK: Well, you can start asking. 

Audience member: So I was really impressed with the locations, especially the one, one of the last ones, if not the last one, which was with the world set design. And, you know, as a filmmaker, myself, I was just looking at that huge set. And seeing all these dancers almost like, in a non-space, there was like fade in black. And I was just wondering, all the pre lighting, I was trying to second guess basically, the pre lighting that was going on, and how to make basically a space look like everything but a space. Yeah, just what kind of space was that? How did you light it? Yeah. 

AK: Right. So it's a great one, because, you know, again, what was most interesting here and how the actual pillars change the space, you know, again, coming from Merce's ideas all the time. And we actually tried to put this dance in all kinds of locations, because it felt like, you know, yeah, maybe we can put it on the Brooklyn Bridge or whatever, you know, like, there's maybe some space that can be changed, but then he was really interested just in those pillars. 

So if you're interested in those pillars, the only way we can do it, we can multiply them by putting the glass floor down, reflection, right? So it's the only thing we did, it's a real soundstage. It's like a normal sound studio in Cologne. All we did was just put the floor and I must say it was a nightmare to choreograph those pillars. As you can imagine, it was a whole other layer of choreography in terms of people with fans, fanning it from different directions and kind of footballing them. And we're like, no, no, this is a very nice thing, you got to be a little gentle. And it took us to, we had to study the behaviour of the pillars. But the dancers, I mean, they love that. They love those pillars. And usually it was many more than usually get used on stage. 

Because on stage, they're just like one thing to the audience. And you know, they're kind of, they also control them, but here, we could really control them much better. But yeah, there's [pre-light] kind of standard stuff. But the light thought was again made in the software, really, and we knew exactly what's going to happen. So it was very efficiently done. But the pillars. Yeah, that dance was shot for two days, which is a big luxury for us. I mean, I wish we had more days, I really felt the difference when had two days versus one day per dance, because, you know, dancers had to kind of get into it. They needed more time just to be in the space itself. And I feel like the rainforest is really just good one because they had two days to be with the pillars. 

AM: Thank you. I'll quickly remark that I've seen this film twice in New York, that Barbican has much better 3D glasses than Lincoln Center does. But also if you ever see the 2D version, which I also once did at Lincoln Center, that's just great too. Alla, my colleagues, thank you so much. 

AK: Thank you. Ellen E Jones Thank you for listening to this Barbican ScreenTalk on Alla Kovgan's Cunningham. Fans of dance cinema will also find lots to fascinate and enjoy in our episode on the Georgian film, And Then we Danced from earlier in this series. If you liked what you heard and would like to hear more, please support us by rating and subscribing to this podcast via Apple podcasts, Acast or your usual podcast providers or visit 

We'd also love to hear your thoughts on this episode or any other. You can find us on social media @BarbicanCentre. Barbican ScreenTalks Archive is presented by me, Ellen E Jones and produced by Jane long for Loftus Media. We'll be back next time with author Naomi Alderman discussing Sebastián Lelio's powerful 2018 adaptation of her debut novel Disobedience. Until then, be well and goodbye.

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