Filmmaker Alla Kovgan has created a new 3D documentary depicting the works of modern dance pioneer Merce Cunningham. Moscow born Kovgan has built a career in Europe and the US with dance films over the years. Her goal is to mix visual art with cinema.
The doc spans three decades of Cunningham's career while showing his accomplishments and influence on the world of dance.
Windy City Times: You are from Moscow, but where are you based?
Alla Kovgan: I moved to New York for this project.
WCT: It took seven years?
AK: Yes. When I moved to America I felt I couldn't write scripts, so looked for physical performance. That's how I entered the whole dance world.
WCT: What inspired you to make Cunningham in 3D?
AK: I never wanted to make a movie about Merce. I was petrified of him as a choreographer because he would have 16 people going in different directions. How would I make a single shot? Just think about it, huge spaces and people everywhere.
I knew of him because of my work with dance. He made films and I have seen them.
The Rockefeller Association had a grant to create a film about New York based choreography using 3d technology. So actually all of this started from 3D. Since 3D is very good with space and uncut shots, I thought it would be good for Merce. He was obsessed with every technologic advancement of his time, so I am sure he would have liked it.
The last generation of his dancers were in front of me. He trained them and then he died. There wouldn't be any more.
WCT: How was filming the balloon sequence?
AK: Usually you have choreography of light and bodies, but now there was the choreography of the balloons on top of that. It was a wonderful and disastrous relationship because they wouldn't listen!
We had tricks to set them in place and fans to make them move. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't, but in the end, we got what we wanted. It was a painful process.
WCT: Merce would have been 100 years old this year. Was that the goal to have the movie out for his birthday?
AK: Not at all. I wanted the movie to be done five years ago! [laughs] He must have wanted us to wait until he's a hundred.
WCT: What did you discover about Merce Cunningham and John Cage's relationship?
AK: I went digging a lot. I know when John Cage moved to New York and met Merce he was married to a woman. He had relationships with men and women. People have made theories about how their art was connected to their homosexuality. There were no personal archives available. There must have been letters…
WCT: I have read there were letters.
AK: Laura Kuhn started publishing letters from John to Merce, but Merce's letters have not come out yet. People didn't know they were in a relationship until the world tour in 1964. They met in the late '30s and no one knew about their relationship.
John loved his wife and also Merce, so it was a really complicated situation. I used a song in the film that was supposedly him processing this change that he was going through, that he would be with Merce and his wife would leave.
I was very interested in the Lecture on Nothing that John Cage gave at the Artist's Club in Manhattan in 1950. The club was full of heterosexual, macho painters where no gay people or women were allowed. The reason they weren't allowed is because they had their own organizations, but why did they need to state it like that?
Why was he giving a lecture like that? Many LGBT theorists say it was a response to all of this, that the silence was an act of protest. It was an active silence, not a passive silence.
John Cage was saying that he had nothing to say and he was saying it. I latched onto that.
This was the only thing in the film that was public. On the outside, no one knew about their relationship. It didn't come through in their work. The first time it was announced was by Cage in 1989 when he said he cooks and Merce does the dishes.
I just found little pieces and I had to talk about it, but wanted to keep the integrity of what they were presenting. They were not advertising it. Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were all in the closet, but much more open.
WCT: You dedicated the film to David Vaughan. Who is that?
AK: David Vaughan met Merce in 1950 and died in 2017. I spent a lot of time with him. He kept index cards and had stories. He was also gay, but didn't learn that Cage and Cunningham were in a relationship until 1964.
WCT: Shouldn't John Cage have his own movie?
AK: There are movies about him. There are 15 movies about Merce. This movie comes from his work and we wanted to translate his ideas into cinema.
WCT: Cunningham seems more of a visual film overall, where we finally learn more about him by the end.
AK: We wanted to show his evolution of work and then bring up his story, his continuing, persevering and making it work.
WCT: What can new audiences, particularly gay audiences, take away from this film?
AK: You don't need to know a lot about Merce or dance to watch it. It will make people think about their bodies. He describes a body as an instrument that deteriorates from birth. Anyone can relate to that. It's a very human story. We demystify him in a way.
People don't know the story of three gay guys that started a dance company. They came from visual arts, dance and music. They came together because they had ideas.
It's a very American story. They were all self made with no art education. They didn't have money or an audience or press for 30 years. Things eventually turned around.
That is incredibly inspiring. All young people should see it. They were there because they were interested in what they were doing and interested in each other. They had a vision and they stuck with it.
Cunningham dances into Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St. on Jan. 3. Tickets and more information can be found at LandmarkTheatres.com .