Merce Cunningham is profiled on the documentary “Cunningham.” (Robert Rutledge/Magnolia Pictures)
Writer-editor

Rating: (2.5 stars)

In a new documentary about Merce Cunningham, filmmaker Alla Kovgan attempts a delicate dance. On the one hand, “Cunningham” stages many of the pioneering choreographer’s abstract works superbly, capturing the vision of an idiosyncratic artist. On the other hand, when it comes to exploring the man behind the art, the film’s execution feels out of step with its ambition.

Cunningham blended the footwork of classical ballet with less traditional movements of the torso to craft a style often labeled as avant-garde, though he shied away from the label. Cunningham launched his career in the late 1930s and was active until his death, at 90, in 2009. The documentary tracks the rise of Cunningham’s New York-based dance company, focusing on dance pieces he created between 1942 and 1972.

Peppered throughout the documentary, these sequences feature a fusion of virtuosic choreography, remarkable athleticism and polished filmmaking. (The film’s preferred format is 3-D, though the visuals are still impressive in the 2-D print that will be shown at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.) By setting the expressive dances in surprising locales — including a lush forest of towering trees, a cobblestone town square and a fluorescent-lit tunnel — Kovgan accentuates the seemingly limitless possibilities of Cunningham’s aesthetic, with visual grandeur.

Some dances are presented without music: Accompanied only by the rhythmic patter of footsteps, the camera gracefully glides through long, uninterrupted shots. Kovgan, a Russian filmmaker making her solo feature debut, also creates a sense of scale, using striking aerial footage of dancers performing on a seaside rooftop. In the film’s most memorable number, Kovgan re-creates “RainForest” — a 1968 collaboration with Andy Warhol in which dancers in tattered costumes weave between sleek, silver balloons.


Dancers perform a piece by choreographer Merce Cunningham on a seaside rooftop in the documentary “Cunningham.” (Magnolia Pictures)

So what do we learn about the mastermind behind such innovation? Using rehearsal and interview footage, the film presents Cunningham as a difficult genius, less interested in commercial success than pure artistic expression. To compensate for the smaller aspect ratio of the archival footage, Kovgan cleverly fills in the frame with photographs and letters from Cunningham’s life, at times throwing multiple clips on screen simultaneously, and playing them side by side. These elements lend the film the appealing aesthetic of a scrapbook.

But the tracking of Cunningham’s career is disappointingly scattershot, barely scratching the surface of the man outside the dance studio. Complicated relationships with collaborators — including composer John Cage, Cunningham’s longtime romantic partner — are mentioned, but not explored in a substantial way. The decision to limit the scope of the documentary to Cunningham’s heyday means we learn little about the roots of his artistry, or the endurance of his legacy.

That’s not to say that “Cunningham” even aspires to paint the definitive picture of its subject. What we get, however, isn’t so much a cohesive narrative as it is set pieces, held together by a thin framing device. For a film of such visual audacity, the lack of storytelling depth is frustrating.

In Kovgan’s defense, Cunningham may have been too enigmatic to probe with complexity. He had a reputation for being cold and distant, as the movie notes, and his reluctance to explain his art is well documented. “I don’t describe it,” he says at one point, “I do it.”

Like the man himself, “Cunningham” takes that mantra to heart — for better and for worse.

PG. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains some smoking. 93 minutes.