Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance

Airs on American Masters, 9:00 p.m. Sunday, December 16, 2001, on PBS affiliates (check local listings)

Reviewed by Rose Anne Thom

A fortunate benefit of Merce Cunningham's fascination with technology is the substantial record of his dances on film, supplemented with excellent interviews that allow him to explain his philosophy and reveal his creative process. As a result, Cunningham admirers eagerly anticipate any new archival endeavor. What fresh insights might be gained from re-viewing his dances and receiving his wisdom, neither of which have diminished with his increasing age? The American Masters program Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance fulfills its promise most effectively when Cunningham tells his story on camera, beginning with his very first dancing lessons and continuing as he dances.

Documentaries such as Event for Television (1977), Points in Space (1986), and Cage/Cunningham (1991) are most striking when they reveal the interface between Cunningham's intelligence, perceptiveness, and wit and his artistry. It makes sense to use others, critics and dancers, to comment on his dancing and his impact on them. But director Charles Atlas might have had a more cohesive and compelling document had there been more of Cunningham's voice. This documentary's chopped-up quality might have been prevented with longer dance excerpts and fewer interruptions by various commentators. Dance titles are subtitled; dancers are not. This is a great offense to the artists.

There are moments in A Lifetime of Dance that Cunningham aficionados will cherish. At home, he explains his morning routine: "I exercise before I even get out of bed" he says, chuckling. The camera scans a notebook of elegant, colorful drawings and jottings—birds, insects, and flowers—that Cunningham sketches as he eats his breakfast. Rare footage shows the young Cunningham performing with Martha Graham and making his own initial efforts at choreography. The spontaneity and animalistic quality of his dancing are immediately apparent. There are sequences showing Cunningham's early company and much discussion of that company's very trying, but—according to company dancers Carolyn Brown and Remy Charlip and light/set/costume designer Robert Rauschenberg—very wonderful years.

There are also clips of dances from the '70s and '80s, but these are used to show examples of Cunningham's process and say little about the evolution and changes in the company, except that it grew from six to about sixteen dancers. The chronology leaps to l999's BIPED, a stunning work that uses computer-altered figures of the dancers as, in Cunningham's words, "moving decor" while the dancers themselves perform onstage. For Cunningham, BIPED represented a once-again daring innovation in a career of provocative approaches to choreography.

A Lifetime of Dance concludes with Cunningham choreographing, as he has for some years, at his portable barre. Whether he is working something out or simply improvising to the steady pulse of a disco song, his sense of theater triumphs as he repeatedly jerks the barre backward in a nimble sequence, teasing the music's vocal line as it reaches its heroic climax.

The film was released on video and DVD in July of 2001.

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