Cunningham – A Film

Cunningham – A Film (in both 2D and 3D)
Directed by All Kovgan
Studio: Magnolia Picture
Runtime: 93 minute

Innovative Dance

The year 2019 marked the centennial of Merce Cunningham’s birth. In three cities, on what might have been his 100th birthday, April 16, in New York, London and Los Angeles, groups of dancers performed 100 solos. These were reconstructed from his many works. Around the world many companies have been taught his repertory so new audiences can experience Cunningham’s innovative dance. Yet, still, to many, his work is strange and irregular.

The decades after World War I brought new explorations in the art world. Dada, surrealism, abstract expressionism and other inventive directions changed the visual arts.Twelve-tone systems and new harmonies were heard in music. The modern dance developed, primarily in Germany and America with powerful movement vocabularies and bare feet! … not seen in traditional ballet. These influences and that of the writer James Joyce and the physicist Einstein were important to Merce, as was the electronic experimentation of his partner, the composer John Cage. American visual artists, Rauschenberg, Warhol and Jasper Johns all contributed to Cunningham’s innovations. When Cunningham choreographed without regard to standard musical rhythms or melodies and replaced narrative with abstract movement, phrasing and groupings, dance audiences were shocked. Now, after fifty years of choreographic output, Cunningham’s work is considered were hallmark of late 20th century dance.

Kovgan’s film makes a serious and splendid effort to capture the history and complexity of the work. By means of archival episodes and choreographic reconstruction by the dancers who were in the company until 2109, she has accomplished much of the story. For example two quotes from a satiric dance are shown. One is of Raushan Mitchell and Mellissa Toogood(?) performing a “pas de deux,” seemingly a satire on that classic ballet event. Mitchell wears a chair on his back (a choice Merce made). Toogood wears a flimsy long dress and sits politely on the chair. Eventually, Mitchell open the door; the dancers and the door slides off the stage.

Kovgan then gives us the archival footage of Cunningham and Carolyn Brown performing the dance in its original. Cunningham chose the chair: Rauschenberg the door! Such quotes not only provide us with a glimpse of Merce’s humor, but gives us clear historical perspective.

Other events are not so successful. We see clips of the class training provided, the care in choreographic structure and shots of Merce’s wonderful feet. Yet, in later passages, dancers are filmed from the torso up; no feet are displayed. Dancers are not dancers without feet! The film also provides great views of landscapes both European and American, that upstage focus on dance movement. Great plazas, fountains, ponds, aerial views of New York bridges and rivers are wonderful to see, but, to this viewer, such shots diminish the dance and the dance story.

Kovgan deserves praise for the inclusion of interview and moments of movement with the older, first company dancers: Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, Valda Setterfield and Gus Solomons, Jr. We see but don’t meet the younger dancers who perform, yet they take many roles in many works. “Cunningham” the film is an outstanding achievement in the “adventure” of creating 20th century dance that Merce accomplished. There is almost too much to be seen, whether in 3D or 2D, for this viewer, the emphasis need to be on the dance and the dancers. Kovgan has overloaded us with interviews, cinematic scenery, quotes valuable and miscellaneous. Nevertheless we are grateful for this production which celebrates Merce Cunningham, a master artist of the 20th century.

Besides the early company members mentioned, the dancers are: Ashley Chen, Brandon Collwes, Dylan Crossman, Julie Cunningham, Jennifer Goggans, Lindsy Jones, Cari Kresge, Daniel Madoff, Rashaun Mitchell, Marcie Mannerlyn, Silas Reiner, Glen Rumse, Jamie Scott, Melissa Toogood.

Joanna G. Harris

Ashley Chen and Melissa Toogood perform “Summers pace”

Set and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg.


Oakland Ballet – The Nutcracker

Oakland Ballet
The Nutcracker
December 22, 2019 5 PM
Paramount Theater, Oakland

Splendid Season

The Nutcracker” is an American tradition at Xmas time, providing opportunities, earnings and audiences a chance to celebrate the season with ballet. Although the original production was performed in Russia as an 1892 two-act ballet (“fairy ballet“), originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Op. 71), and libretto adapted from E. T. A. Hoffmann‘s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King“, the work was performed in San Francisco in 1944 by Lew Christensen and the SF Ballet through the help of NYC Ballet’s director, George Balanchine. Now there are dozens of productions around the country and the Bay Area including hip-hop and jazz Nutcracker.

The Oakland Ballet, under the direction of Graham Lustig, provides a delightful production featuring many children from his Ballet Academy as well as some featured stars. Most notable was the starring role of Marie (called Clara in other versions) by Paunika Jones, the first (to my knowledge) African-American ballerina to take that role. She is a charming performer, holding the entire cast under her attention and providing fine dancing. Equally notable is Jackie McDonnell who not only danced “Cousin Vera” in Act 1, but was transformed into the Sugar Plum Fairy in Act 2. Accompanied by her partner, Thomas Panto, they brought excellence in technique and bravura to those roles.

The stage of the Paramount Theater appears to be wide but not deep. Lustig is to be congratulated for his ability to have so many groups, flowers, family, rats, soldiers, various national dancers, snow and snowballs (among others) on and off the stage, providing each with lively choreography. The audience cheered, not only at the bravura technique of the principals, (McDonnel, Panto and Jones), but for all the children and the artists of the special events.

Lustig tells me that the Oakland Ballet is looking forward to a 50th celebration of The Nutcracker for his company. It has become a vital part of the Oakland community through its various holiday celebrations and the inclusions of the wide variety of residents, adults and children who constitute the lively East Bay community.

Michael Morgan and the Oakland Symphony provided the musical accompaniment. Also notable in the artistic staff are Zack Brown (costumes), Patty Ann Farrell (lighting), Bat Abbit (Ballet Master) and Christopher Dunn (Wardrobe Supervisor). Bravo to all!

Joanna G. Harris