Mylar silver cushions – large rectangular helium-filled balloons – wrapped the stage in Rainceest's 1968 work by choreographer Merce Cunningham. The balloons, created by pop artist Andy Warhol, resembled a dense forest on stage. Some grounded, others floated like clouds, while Cunningham's cast of six dancers performed wild-inspired choreography, often hitting or kicking the floating orbs.
The play is one of Cunningham's early iconic works. It is also one of 14 rebuilt dances for the 3D movie "Cunningham", which opens in theaters on Friday.
Directed by Alla Kovgan, "Cunningham" traces the first 30 years of the choreographer's seven-decade career – from his years as a struggling artist in New York to popular recognition.
Rebuilt excerpts from Cunningham's early dances, performed between 1942 and 1972, performed mainly by former members of the company, make up most of the film, including "Winterbranch", "Summerspace" and "Crises." The film's narrative is told through archival recordings of Cunningham, professional and personal partner John Cage, collaborator Robert Rauschenberg, and former company dancers. Archival photographs and footage of the company's performances and rehearsals complete the image.
"Cunningham" explores "how Merce became Merce," said Kovgan. "People remembered Merce as an old man, mostly, and everyone forgot how amazing a dancer was and what he went through."
Excerpt from "Cunningham". The dancers perform the 1968 work of choreographer "RainForest". (Magnolia Pictures)
Kovgan was inspired by the 2011 Wim Wenders 3D film about contemporary German choreographer Pina Bausch and one of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company final performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2011. (The choreographer died in 2009).
Shortly after the presentation, she went to Merce Cunningham Trust on how to make a movie.
Kovgan worked with the film's director of choreography – Jennifer Goggans, a member of the company for 12 years, and Robert Swinston, who worked with Cunningham for 32 years and is an administrator of the Merce Cunningham Trust. The director spent seven months researching the archives and selecting 14 dances to re-imagine the film.
Rebuilding "RainForest" requires several layers of choreography, Kovgan said.
After seeing Warhol's "Silver Clouds" installation, which opened in a New York gallery in 1966, Cunningham immediately became interested in "how these balloons would affect dancers, how they would redefine space," Kovgan said. The choreographer was also inspired by his childhood in Centralia, Washington, and the rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula.
Warhol suggested that the dancers be naked for work, but for Cunningham, that was not practical. Instead, collaborator Jasper Johns punched holes in flesh-colored tights, giving the costumes an animalistic quality. The work also featured songs by composer and experimental pianist David Tudor that "evoke these sounds of nature as if you were literally standing in a rainforest listening to birds and animals," Goggans said.
To develop a concept for filming, Kovgan and Goggans turned to Cunningham's ideas about doing dance.
He didn't say what a particular dance was. "It always starts with a physical question or concept," Kovgan said. "We would try to figure out how to think about these questions and concepts that he explored in terms of cinema."
Because the pillows that form a mesmerizing grove are like additional dancers in the play, the team decided to create a black void by focusing on the balloons. "In the end, it's all about how these pillows defined the space," said Kovgan. "Basically, we had the idea of a black mirrored floor that would amplify the presence of the pillows."
Cunningham's director of choreography, Jennifer Goggans, dances in the 1968 work of choreographer "RainForest" with Brandon Collwes.
(Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts)
Most of the film was filmed in Germany in May 2018, and "RainForest" was filmed for two days in a Cologne studio. It took a whole day to figure out how to control the 50 balloons and the way they interacted with the dancers.
Kovgan used some of the same tricks that Cunningham invented for the stage.
Some balloons were filled with a mixture of helium and air so that they could hover in the air; others were grounded using a weight. Balloon organizers – people with fans – were on their side, guiding balloons toward the dancers.
Goggans, who is also a dancer in the film, appears in a role originally played by Cunningham's most celebrated co-dancer, Carolyn Brown. Suspended upside down, with her legs wrapped around another dancer's forearm, she swings wildly, tapping the silver balloons repeatedly.
Goggans recalled learning "RainForest" within a week or two after joining the company in 2000.
"I'll never forget the rhythms," she said. "I will never forget Merce to be in the room and train the dancers in their role."
Filming the dance was another kind of choreography.
On stage, Cunningham's work involves several things happening at the same time, Goggans said. "As a viewer, you have the option of where to look."
But the movie is different. "We're basically choreographing the viewer's eye," said Kovgan. "We need to tell the camera what viewers will see every second."
The director also edited "Cunningham," which she described as yet another type of choreography.
A photo from the 3D movie "Cunningham" shows a recreation of the 1958 work of choreographer "Summerspace".
(Photos from Mko Malkshasyan / Magnolia)
"You're dealing with rhythm between two shots. You're dealing with rhythm within the sequence and then another in the whole piece," she said. 3-D adds another layer of complication.
This is why Kovgan mapped each scene in each dance before filming.
"When we were filming, I always felt like we were going through a fiction movie process," she said. "The dance sequences were very easy to edit."
For Goggans, who trains companies around the world to do Cunningham's work, seeing “RainForest” and other dances come to life through film was a special experience.
Every day after filming, "I came back and could hardly believe it," she said. "It was just that beautiful testimony of creating magic on screen and being true to Merce's work."
& # 39; Cunningham & # 39;
Rated: PG, Smoking
Duration: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: Open Friday at Laemmle Royal, ArcLight Sherman Oaks, Regal UA Long Beach, Regal Edwards Westpark, Irvine