Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Apr 28, 2019 4:50 pm 
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Dance Film SF, which stages the San Francisco Dance Film Festival, is participating in the celebration of Merce Cunninghom at 100 with special screenings of two films, Assemblage (1968) and If the Dancer Dances (2018) on Saturday, May 4th 2019 at the Delancey Street Screening Room in San Francisco.


A remarkable Merce Cunningham dance film experiment from 1968

The first of the two films, Assemblage, is a recently rediscovered (and colorized) 58-minute film made in 1968 for KQED, the local San Francisco educational television station. It's a multi-layered creation, far more than just a film of a dance. The choreography and the performances were conceived entirely to be filmed. But not merely filmed. On the surface, its a dance "happening" staged in the newly attractive Ghirardelli Square, which had been bought and done over ("gentrified", if you will) in 1964 as a touristic retail center, a historic rehabilitated "mall." On another level, it's a visual experiment in which images of the dancers are alternately shown straight or overlapped, broken up into sections, and even fragmented on screen into kaleidoscopic prisms. There are other special visual effects, such as overlapping two images of the same silhouetted dancer, large and small (see image above). Sometimes a wide shot of the dancers on walkways and in open spaces is used as the background for the overlay of a few foregrounded dancers in silhouette. (The colorizing, while I don't usually approve of doctoring a document, does help the eye to separate the many elements of the images.)

Overlaying all these dance and post-production effects is a score by Cunningham's longtime collaborator, John Cage, which combines urban sounds in space with occasional overheard random voices.

The elaborate manipulation is exciting and fun, but ultimately what counts is Merce Cunningham's choreographic conception of using the Ghirardelli Square setting. The dancers are always dancers, but they are also people in an urban space, moving in different directions on different levels, in the large ground level square; on balcony levels; even on a jutting floor that emerges from a rooftop - all moving and visually interacting simultaneously, a symphony of urban multiplicity.

On one level this is a celebration of Ghirardelli Square, and thus the self-reviving city of San Francisco; on another it's a celebration of the Merce Cunningham company and its adaptability to unfamiliar environments and ability to express situations and ideas beyond conventional ballet. As Cunningham put it to the San Francisco Chronicle's longtime music and dance critic Robert Commanday in a contemporary interview cited on the online Electronic Arts Intermix, "the finished film will deal not so much with dance in the narrow sense, but with various motions--boats moving, people walking, and, of course, groups dancing." And also running.

Sometimes the dancers are dressed in colorful street clothes; other times they are in ballet tights. Sometimes they dance in groups, in unison. Other times they move by themselves, sometimes crazily, evoking the manic energy of a city. Occasional closeups show them greeting, touching, kissing each other. There are other images that appear, like a piece of paper with writing on it. or a closeup of Merce Cunningham's face. The style and look and approach both in the dancers and in the filmic manipulation of the images are constantly shifting. At the end, the dancers just walk away, as if it was a surprise crowd event, staged for a random audience (though actual bystanders are not seen), and now it's over.

Assemblage - a word used by the Dadaissts (especially Marcel Duchamp) for works using found, ordinary objects, and Merce and John's contemporary and friend Robert Rauschenberg (who called them "Combines") - is an astonishment and a delight. It's brilliant and fun. We're very lucky that somebody found this hitherto lost film made for television. It shows why and how Merce Cunningham was both an innovator in dance and a pioneer in the art of collaboration.

The performance, the result of three weeks of practice on site, features Cunningham's early dance company, Carolyn Brown, Sandra Neels, Valda Setterfield, Meg Harper, Susana Hayman-Chaffey, Jeff Slayton, Chase Robinson, and Mel Wong. The performance was staged in collaboration with director and former dancer Richard Moore. Moore and film editor Bill Yahraus, working with a quartet of collaborators for the editing, created the finished film, breaking up dance "modules" of Cunningham's choreography and collaging them in multiple on screen patterns, fragmented, separated, and overlapping, in different sizes, in different windows, in superimposed planes and on different added backgrounds. In one remarkable segment a miniaturized version of the dance troupe is seen weaving in and out of their own giant superimposed legs. It's a tribute to the filmmakers' work and the force of the dance that the distinctive choreography of Merce Cunningham and his company never gets lost in the spaces or in the processed images.

Saturday, May 4 | 2 PM
Delancey Street Screening Room
600 The Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA 94107


If the Dancer Dances

A revival of an iconic Merce Cunningham dance

The second offering at the Dance Film Festival honoring Merce Cunningham is a documentary film directed by Maia Wechsler. It focuses on Stephen Petronio, who has had his own modern dance company for thirty years, and his restaging at the Joyce Theater in the Chelsea district of New York of Merce Cunningham's Rainforest, one of his iconic works. It premiered in 1968, the year of Assemblage. This new production has a special significance because Cunningham directed that his company be dissolved at his death (which was in 2009). This is a brave effort (all those involved and on the sidelines emphasize the the pressure of reproducing a Cunningham creation) to keep alive the legacy of one of the great choreographers of modern dance, an art form that vanishes if it is not performed. Ultimately it is successful, though the debut performance may be only the beginning: the dancers relax and grow really natural in their roles in subsequent performances. Petronio, who attributes being a choreographer to Cunningham, narrates.

The sets of Rainforest (inspired by a place in Washington State where Cunnngham grew up) are silver helium balloons by Andy Warhol, the music is by David Tudor, and the costumes (ragged tights) are by Jasper Johns. Three members of the now dissolved Merce Cunningham dance company, Rashaun Mitchell, Andrea Weber and Meg Harper, come to teach Petronio's dancers the choreography of Rainforest. The film also shows clips of the original production of the work, which, admittedly, has a colorful, wild quality the present-day performance seems to lack. There was nobody like Merce Cunningham. We get that.

It seems an added difficulty (psychologically at least) for the dancers, members of Petronio's company, is that unlike dancers of a big classical ballet company used to doing different ballets by various choreographers under different directors, they are used to doing only Petronio's own works. What we learn is that Cunningham rehearsed all his dances in silence, using not music but a stop watch to time sequences. He also had very slow and very fast movement, and while most dance flows, his had lots of stillness, stops and starts. He thought of dance as a spiritual practice.

Cunningham, Petronio explains, stripped away characters and storytelling and focused on pure "abstract" movement, and movement in a style all his own, which Petronio's dancers must learn from Rashaun, Andrea and Meg, mostly, it appears, Andrea. Meg, the elder, actually danced Rainforest with Merce Cunningham himself. We learn that Rainforest actually did have many images of, well, what might be in a rain forest, animals, wildness, sexuality, an edge of excitement, not just abstraction at all in this case. We see the Cunningham dancers teach the Petronio troupe the dance moves of Rainforest. The film devotes a lot of time to those teaching sessions.

Whatever the virtues of this documentary (some say it's too self-congratulatory and giddy; the teaching parts may be repetitious) , it teaches us quite a bit about Merce Cunningham's dance. But for the non-dancer, this remains a puzzlement, and sometimes too technical. If, as bios say, he "laid the foundations for modern dance," how come his choreography is so different in feel from others'? We see how hard this re-creation is. It seems to feel constrained, perhaps through the pressure to honor the master. Andrea is too precise, too mechanical. Gus Solomons Jr., an older Cunningham dancer, sheds light when he says they need to feel like they are moving under water. Maybe Cunningham eschewed metaphors, but a metaphor was sorely needed.

Why, after so much focus on this dance, does the film not show the complete performance of it - and interrupt the footage of the much-anticipated public performance with constant voice-overs? It's as if the filmmakers were as nervous as the dancers, unable to let the event speak for itself. But in the end, enlightened, we relax - and maybe do some hamstring stretches.

If the Dancer Dances, 83 mins., debuted 24 July 2018 in the Dance on Camera Festival at Lincoln Center, and opened theatrically in the US 26 Apr. 2019. Metascore 65%.


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