The original Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

There’s an old saying (possibly coined by Martin Mull): “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” So reviewing Alla Kovgan’s new documentary about groundbreaking dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham would be about three exponentially futile steps removed from Cunningham’s art itself. 

Throw in the fact that my own relationship to dance and, indeed, physical expressiveness of any kind, could be charitably described as lumbering, terminally stiff and please God, just make it stop, and the odds of insightful commentary here seem pretty long. And yet “Cunningham,” playing at PMA Films starting Friday, is as stubbornly inviting as its subject to those seeking enlightenment in the unorthodox, striking and confrontational. Like the bodies of the dancers within, viewers are likely to emerge from this colorfully perplexing depiction of Cunningham’s work twisted up in graceful knots. 

“We don’t interpret something, we present something,” the eternally limber Cunningham tells an interviewer early in the film, and that slippery elusiveness marks both the dancer and filmmaker Kovgan’s approach throughout. There are no long-winded interpretations from art critics or dance experts to be found, just snippets of Cunningham – in his amiably patrician accent and restless impatience – claiming of his intricate and challenging dance compositions, “I never was interested in dancing that referred … it is what it is.”

Fair enough. Great artists are traditionally disinclined to lay out just what their work means. Kovgan, respecting her late subject’s stance, instead focuses on the work, specifically the period from 1947-72 when Cunningham’s endlessly strange and often mesmerizing pieces rocked the dance world.

“The audience was puzzled,” we hear Cunningham explain after one performance. A tour of Paris sees him relating, not unhappily, in a letter, “Several eggs and tomatoes thrown.”

Paired with famous (and similarly flummoxing) artists over the years like painter Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and composer John Cage, Cunningham’s works – presented in archival footage and gloriously shot contemporary performances for the film – are, indeed, the sort of experience destined to unsettle. As Cage put it of his own legendarily difficult music, while some people look to art to soothe and distract them from the confusion and pain of life, he sought to make “an art that was so bewildering, complex, and illogical that we would return to life with great pleasure.” 

Eschewing labels like “modern” or “avant garde” to describe his style, Cunningham yet – in one of the few direct explanations offered in the film – notes how he saw the best elements of certain types of dance (legs in ballet, torso in modern dance) and incorporated them. So what does a Merce Cunningham dance piece look like? Let me dance around it.

Bodies so sculpted to a particular purpose that they have become nearly abstract objects in space never quite follow the course your mind anticipates. Cunningham – his massive, muscled feet in closeup – pulsing and twisting in raggedly graceful and precise movements whose seeming incongruity is belied by their obvious purpose. A trio writhes in deceptively jagged movements amidst a sea of floating mylar balloons. The undisguised slaps of bare feet on a wooden platform in the deep forest, where a group of dancers break, combine and split in patterns that almost, but never quite, come together. A soaring cityscape helicopter shot catches another team of dancers enacting one of Cunningham’s many intricate dances on a New York City rooftop. 

First-time feature director Kovgan gives all these many performances time to breathe, unobtrusively following the dancers’ movements (we see a cameraman in a Steadicam harness gliding alongside at one point) and allowing us to puzzle out the meaning. For there is meaning, as much as Cunningham himself resisted it. Dance is one of the most ephemeral arts, but Cunningham’s meticulously constructed dances are still performed, in all their exquisite mystery. 

Near the end of the 90-minute film, the aging Cunningham muses on how inconvenient it is that dance, more than any other art form, must rely on the fallible human body for its expression. He talks about how dance has “too many low things in it” (like feet and sweat), and explains that to dance involves “perfecting an instrument that’s really deteriorating since birth.” But for the notoriously exacting Cunningham, the effort is all in service of an art that was, simply, the only form that could possibly express what he wanted to express. “But when it clicks,” we hear Cunningham say, “it becomes memorable, and one can be seduced all over again.” 

Come get seduced by “Cunningham” at PMA Films (www.portlandmuseum.org/films), 7 Congress Square, Portland, Friday through Jan. 30. Tickets are $5.

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