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Fox Lorber presents
Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance (2000)

"He was interested always in the position of the body in space, the angles of it."
- Mikhail Baryshnikov

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: July 17, 2001

Stars: Merce Cunningham, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Robert Rauschenberg, Remy Charlip, Earle Brown, Richard Alston
Other Stars: Jane Dudley, Carolyn Brown, Gavin Bryars, Gordon Mumma, Gus Solomon Jr., Meredith Monk, David Behrman, Takehisa Kosugi
Director: Charles Atlas

Manufacturer: DVSS
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:29m:50s
Release Date: July 10, 2001
UPC: 720917313726
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
C C+B+B D-

DVD Review

A disclaimer to begin with: I don't understand or like modern dance, but I've got the disc to review nonetheless. This may invalidate my opinions to some, but much of my criticism of this disc will be applicable whether one appreciates modern dance or not. I would like to replace the word "dance" here with "hop, twitch and jerk," but I will refrain from doing so. Just barely.

This program is a television presentation from the American Masters series, Mercier Cunningham being one of the masters of dance. The documentary covers his career as a performer from the 1940s through the 1970s and the years since as a choreographer. Even as an octogenarian he was performing, though obviously in a much more limited capacity. Over the last forty-odd years, he has operated the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which regularly performs to much acclaim. Legions of adoring wannabe dancers are seen listening raptly as Cunningham lectures with platitudes about movement and bodies in space.

The documentary falls short in a number of respects, most notably in footage from early in Cunningham's career. Although the interviewees go on at length about Cunningham's amazing athleticism, it is mostly portrayed through still photographs, not film. This makes the viewer feel quite excluded; we have to take their word that he was able to leap "like no one else" because we see little visual evidence of it. This point is not aided by the anamorphic widescreen format; much of the 1940s' film is heavily cropped at the top and bottom, cutting off heads and depriving the viewer of any perspective.

Part of what I find so distasteful about modern dance can be traced to Cunningham's collaborators. For many years, his primary musical collaborator was John Cage. Cunningham adopted the same aleatory method as Cage, combining dance movements in random, difficult ways that are pretty much indistinguishable from the normal steps that he choreographed, but apparently this randomness was important to him. To top it all off, on several of his productions, the set designer was another artist I do not admire, Robert Rauschenberg. He would construct the set on tour out of whatever he could find in the theater where they were performing—a high calling of art indeed. (Duchamp did it fifty years before, Robert, and frankly, it wasn't all that interesting even then.)

Even one who likes modern dance will probably be bored to tears by this presentation, which seems hours longer than its 90 minute running time. Cunningham has little interesting to say (he spends a great deal of time laughing about his various aches and pains of old age, as well as his childish artwork, indicating a possible slipping toward senility—though who could tell?), and the other commentators are primarily sycophantic. Director Charles Atlas relies almost entirely on talking heads, giving no variety whatsoever to the program. I will add that there are two intriguing sections near the end: one of Cunningham's adoption of computer choreography, and a brief discussion with his chiropractor, who has some humorous insights on Cunningham's situation. I must also admit that there is one entertaining bit of dance, Antic Meet, involving Cunningham trying to get into a four-armed sweater without a neckhole while dancing chickens, meant to satirize Martha Graham's style, dance around him. This gesture to the surrealist sensibility at least has a sense of humor going for it, unlike the intensely self-important pieces of choreography that are the norm here.

Those who adore the work of which Cunningham is a master may like this disc, but I recommend others stay away. A reviewer of the 1950s quoted here says it best: "What a shame that such a great dancer is wasting his time with this kind of work."

Performance excerpts include Occasion Piece (1999), Solo (1974), Pond Way (1998), Beach Birds for Camera (1992), Four Walls (1944), Exchange (1978), Punch and the Judy (1941), Antic Meet (1958), Septet (1953), Torse (1976), Summerspace (1958), Crises (1960), Rune (1960), Winterbranch (1964) and Biped (1999) among many others.

Rating for Style: C
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic widescreen picture is decent in general, considering the source material. Shot on video, the program has obvious limitations in clarity. No edge enhancement appears to have been added. Colors are mostly bright and accurate. In addition to the cropping noted in the main review, the older films are often very low quality, blurry and/or grainy, but this is an obvious source limitation. The modern material is all quite satisfactory. Video bit rates are quite high, running at average 7-8 mBps, spiking as high as 10 mBps frequently.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Although the package claims the audio is stereo, it is in fact 2.0 mono. The sound is clear and noise-free throughout. It gets the job done. Cage's music sounds terrible, which is as it should be.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Weblinks to Fox Lorber's newsletter, Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation, Salon.com interview with Cunningham, and American Masters.
Extras Review: Other than a couple weblinks, there are no extras at all. Chaptering is adequate. No subtitles are included.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

A banal, insipid and ultimately depressing documentary about the state of modern dance, music and art. Anyone with taste is advised to avoid the program. For those who like this sort of thing, it's a decent presentation, except for the cropping of older films.


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