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Chris Knight: Cunningham is a bold 3D try at capturing one art form in the frame of another

A scene from Cunningham.
A scene from Cunningham.

Depending on how you slice it, Cunningham is either the second-best film in its very particular genre, or the worst.

That’s because it exists in the rarefied realm of 3D-documentary-about-deceased-mid-20th-century-choreographer. The only other example is Pina, a 2011 film about Pina Bausch by Wim Wenders.

For dance aficionados and neophytes alike, there is something thrilling about watching one of the most spatially dependent art forms delivered on the big screen in three dimensions. And Merce Cunningham, who died in 2009 at the age of 90, created some amazing works.

Perhaps the best suited to the screen is Summerspace, where the performers dance in spotted costumes in front of a similarly painted backdrop; the effect is like leonine camouflage. (Apologies if that phrase gives you Cats flashbacks.)

But while writer/director Alla Kovgan covers Cunningham’s philosophy and contemporary reactions to his work, she can’t quite convey its raw emotional content. Too often she reverts to old (2D) black-and-white footage of the choreographer. And when modern dancers perform, the camera is too eager to move and cut rather than just stay still and observe.

It’s a bold attempt to capture one art form in the frame of another, but it ends up a mild second place to anyone wowed by Pina.

2.5 stars

Cunningham opens Jan. 10 in Toronto, and Jan. 17 in Vancouver and Montreal, with other cities to follow.

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