IMPRESSIONS: Cunningham on Film (Part 1): "August Pace 1989 - 2019" Directed by Daniel Madoff

IMPRESSIONS: Cunningham on Film (Part 1): "August Pace 1989 - 2019" Directed by Daniel Madoff
Sarah Cecilia Bukowski

By Sarah Cecilia Bukowski
View Profile | More From This Author

Published on March 18, 2024
"August Pace 1989-2019." Photo courtesy of Bullfrog Films

August Pace 1989 - 2019

(Click for credits and trailer) 

Director and Editor: Daniel Madoff

Producers: Patricia Lent and Ken Tabachnick

Composer and Sound Designer: Josh Madoff

Cast: Victoria Finlayson – Robert Swinston, Emma Diamond – Dennis O’Connor, Carol Teitelbaum – David Kulick, Kimberly Bartosik – Chris Komar, Helen Barrow – Robert Wood, Larissa McGoldrick – Michael Cole, Patricia Lent – Alan Good, Jenifer Weaver

Workshop Dancers: Vanessa Knouse – Ernesto Breton, Caitlin Javech – Justin Lynch, Caroline Haidet – Reid Bartelme, Mariah Anton – Ryan Pliss, Chaery Moon – Gary Champi, Eve Jacobs – Mac Twining, Calleja Smiley Welsh – Logan Pedon, Jaqueline Calle

Workshop Understudies: Emily Bernet, Emma Cohen, Andrew Harper, Love Hellgren

Presenter: Dance on Camera Festival at Film at Lincoln Center

Choreographer: Merce Cunningham © Merce Cunningham Trust. All rights reserved.

First, a disclaimer (or perhaps just a claim): Cunningham is kind of my jam. I fell into full-bodied love with Merce almost five years ago after nearly thirty years as a ballet dancer. My familiar morning regimen of pliés and tendus at the barre has since expanded to include Cunningham technique’s freestanding progression of exercises for the spine and limbs. This happy confluence continues to shape me as a dancer, mover, creator, writer, thinker, and human being. My lifelong love for dance springs from a deep reservoir of curiosity, and just when the frustrations of pain and anxiety threatened to dry it up, Cunningham tapped a new, uncharted well in me. A landscape of boundless discovery opens before me — a terrain full of raucous topographies, peaks and plateaus of impossibility, and endless plains dotted with unexpected bodily architectures. The Merce Cunningham Trust supports and enables my explorations through regular class practice, repertory workshops, and performance opportunities, all of which serve the Trust’s mission to steward Cunningham’s legacy into the future.

As my Cunningham practice evolves and my connections to its origins and diaspora deepen, I sense the presence of past and future through my body and its relationship with others in the overlapping explorations of classwork, rehearsal, and conversation. From the inside, dancing Cunningham’s work is like putting together a puzzle: the seeming chaos of the pile of pieces — limbs, spine, hands, feet, head — builds into a formal logic to allow a larger picture to appear as shapes, rhythms, phrases, and continuity. Carving out the body’s component parts expands its entropic potential for modular articulation and kinesthetic wayfinding. This is a puzzle with multiple solutions, some as yet undiscovered.

A film still from August Pace 1989-2019 directed by Daniel Madoff. Photo courtesy of Bullfrog Films

The puzzle materializes where choreography meets the individual dancing body, and it is this process that grounds Cunningham legacy projects on stage and screen. The 54-minute film August Pace 1989-2019 takes a narrative, documentary-style approach to the transmission of Cunningham’s choreography between generations of dancers to illuminate the work itself and the meaning of legacy at individual, collective, and historical scales.

Premiered at the 2024 Dance on Camera Festival, August Pace is an intimate documentation of an intergenerational choreographic restaging process that highlights the importance of embodied transmission in repertory preservation. But more, it is a sensitive, loving film that delves deeply to investigate the nature of memory, the subtleties of aging, and the mutual physical empathies that bond dancers in process together. Director Daniel Madoff, himself a former Cunningham company dancer, embeds cameras and microphones in the bustling rehearsal room to capture in-the-moment communications shaded by the idiosyncrasies of personality. Original performance footage and interviews lend context and dimension to the ways in which a dance work and its dancers evolve through time. With all these elements at play, the film still manages not to feel crowded, with observant silences that take care to allow an open, receptive viewership.

A film still from August Pace 1989-2019 directed by Daniel Madoff. Photo courtesy of Bullfrog Films

As its title indicates, the film tracks the 30-anniversary workshop restaging of Cunningham’s 1989 dance of the same name. The work’s seven continuous duets are each composed of two solo sequences danced simultaneously, braiding in and out of independence and overlap through dialogue, collision, and support. These structural devices lend the work to a highly individuated transmission process, with thirteen of the cast’s original fifteen dancers involved in the restaging. Their reunion is heartwarming and at times hilarious to witness — their bodies and physical capabilities shaped variously by the intervening decades, their memories alternately reliable and fallible, their quirks and instincts reanimated by the act of dancing together.

The younger generation of dancers is a diverse group with varying orientations to and experiences with Cunningham’s work, and they grow from a sense of reverence and curiosity to palpable joy and gratitude as steps are bequeathed from body to body. Patricia Lent, the Cunningham Trust’s Director of Licensing (and herself an original August Pace cast member), possesses a keen instinct for pairing dancers across generations; this resonance illuminates their physical interactions in the studio and is further amplified by the juxtaposition of original and contemporary footage. Cunningham’s work simultaneously contains definitive clarity—of position, timing, orientation, and quality—amid an open field of interpretive possibility, and the film shows just how each individual manages these to balance these elements in their own way.

A film still from August Pace 1989-2019 directed by Daniel Madoff. Photo courtesy of Bullfrog Films

The elder dancers communicate the structure and physicality of their roles in addition to their internal motivations to more deeply inform the technical accuracy and interpretive dynamics of their younger counterparts. The steps live in their bodies, in the memory of doing and the doing of memory. They partner each other to feel their way through memory with tactile immediacy, using an array of embodied knowledges and communication methods to make the steps and interactions come to life. Their eyes dance with vibrant attention as they watch the work reanimate before them as a quietly wondrous revelation. Above all, the film highlights how a dance evolves with time and between bodies; it’s less about being a facsimile of an “original” and more about listening deeply to give and receive with care the elements that allow each dancer to be an original themselves.

A film still from August Pace 1989-2019, directed by Daniel Madoff. Photo courtesy of Bullfrog Films

This film reached me on a personal level as well — I had the immense pleasure of working with six of the original August Pace dancers on last year’s site-specific arrangement of the iconic 1991 dance Beach Birds for Beach Sessions Dance Series at Rockaway Beach. This intimate process forged connections and friendships across generations that I continue to treasure for their wealth of shared learning and reflected experience. Far beyond the rigors of the choreography itself, the dancers’ boundless generosity, passion, humor, and love is truly the stuff dancing is made of.

For more Cunningham on film, see Part 2: MERCE / MISHA / MORE & Event at REDCAT and stay tuned in April for Part 3: The Events at Dia Beacon, presented by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

The Dance Enthusiast Shares IMPRESSIONS/our brand of review, and creates conversation.
For more IMPRESSIONS, click here.
Share your #AudienceReview of performances. Write one today!

The Dance Enthusiast - News, Reviews, Interviews and an Open Invitation for YOU to join the Dance Conversation.

Related Features

More from this Author