Legendary modern dance choreographer Pina Bausch presaged her American contemporary Merce Cunningham in a few non-dance-related areas: the lauded German artist passed away mere weeks before Cunningham did in 2009, and her work inspired a jaw-dropping 3D film eight years before Cunningham’s received the same sort of cinematic treatment. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting double feature than Wim Wenders’ “Pina” and Alla Kovgan’s upcoming “Cunningham,” a pair of 3D documentary features that bring to vivid life the work and artistry of two icons of modern dance through contemporary means.
Much like “Pina,” Kovgan’s film attempts to translate the magic of Cunningham’s live work to the big screen through 3D technology and an array of key archival material. Also like Bausch and the many devoted students she left behind, “Cunningham” grapples with the question of a choreographer’s legacy and what can actually remain of the kind of work that can be so literally fleeting. A choreographer is surely a creator, but when they make something as ephemeral as a dance — not a painting or a film or a sculpture, something that can be held— what becomes of their legacy? It’s a complicated question, and one center stage in “Cunningham,” which helps unpack the choreographer’s own forward-thinking take on how to preserve his own legacy.
Per the film’s official synopsis, it “weaves together Merce’s philosophies and stories, creating a visceral journey into his innovative work,” and is a “breathtaking explosion of dance, music, and never-before-seen archival material.” “Cunningham” is principally concerned with the choreographer’s most fruitful working years, from 1944 to 1972, but it also includes the last generation of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing some of his signature works during new performances. Often set in inventive locations like train tunnels and high-rise rooftops, the film makes the case for Cunningham’s continued relevance, even in a world that no longer contains him.
The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, and is now gearing up for a mid-December release, the kind of dating that just might sneak it into the Oscar race. And, yes, “Pina” also earned its own Oscar nod, fittingly enough.
Check out the first trailer for “Cunningham,” exclusively on IndieWire, below. Magnolia Pictures will release the film in theaters on Friday, December 13.