Flying high at the beach: Birds, dancers, Merce and Michelson

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Flying high at the beach: Birds, dancers, Merce and Michelson
From left, Nyah Malone, Chaery Moon, Arielle François, Morgan Griffin, Marc Crousillat, perform in Merce Cunningham’s “Beach Birds” at Rockaway Beach in New York on Aug. 11, 2023. This year, Beach Sessions pairs an adaptation of Merce Cunningham’s “Beach Birds” with a response by the choreographer Sarah Michelson. (Amir Hamja/ The New York Times)

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK, NY.- With outstretched arms, dancers skimmed across the sand like gliding birds, soundless against the pressing wind and somehow soaring without actual wings. They tipped forward from their hips, leaning their torsos ever so slightly forward. They stood still while holding up a quivering, bent leg. Sometimes, as they lingered in a position, gradually lowering an arm or bending to the side, a sea gull flew past the glinting sun, dipping and then rising before disappearing into the horizon.

The glittering scene seemed like a dream. Surveying the shoreline of Rockaway Beach on a recent morning, Patricia Lent, from the Merce Cunningham Trust, was elated. “This is a dream come true,” she said, adding: “It’s someone else’s dream — but it is a dream come true.”

Cunningham’s “Beach Birds” has finally made its way to the beach.

An adaptation of this 1991 dance is part of this year’s Beach Sessions Dance Series, at Rockaway Beach on Saturday. Staged by Lent and Rashaun Mitchell — both former company members and trustees — “Beach Birds” comes to life in a setting where the sand, the sea and real birds create, along with 11 dancers, a humming summer landscape.

Cunningham, one of the most innovative choreographers of the 20th century, who died in 2009, experimented with conventions, introducing elements of chance into his dances, which featured precise, articulate and highly technical movement. Music existed independently in his works, which allowed a dance to be a dance instead of choreography tethered to a score. Like composer John Cage, his collaborator and companion, Cunningham pushed boundaries.

The idea to present “Beach Birds” at Rockaway came from Morgan Griffin, a producer of Beach Sessions and a former student of Mitchell’s at New York University. “There’s this notion that Merce’s work will diminish with the people who are aging and who followed his work,” Mitchell said. “But I think it’s so beautiful that a young person who hasn’t met Merce and who didn’t see the company, wanted this work to be reconstructed.”

There’s an added draw to this year’s Beach Sessions. The 20-minute performance of “Beach Birds” (on the sand at Beach 108th Street, beginning at 5:45 p.m.) will be followed by a response to the dance by choreographer Sarah Michelson, whose premiere will start on the boardwalk at Beach 102nd Street.

Michelson, a MacArthur “genius” grant winner, never performed with Cunningham’s company, but has a history with many of its members and its school. In the early 1990s, about the time that “Beach Birds” was being made, she moved to New York from San Francisco and ended up at the Cunningham studio as a scholarship student. Many of her peers were steeped in the world of Cunningham.

Her choreographic response will explore her relationship to “Beach Birds,” as well as to Cunningham and his legacy; wrapped up in that is her experience being a part of a community of dancers that formed their artistic ideas in the early 1990s. “We all were friends,” Michelson said, “living and thinking and dancing and just growing up together.”

It was during that time that Michelson presented her first dance, at the Cunningham Studio. As she looks at Cunningham’s legacy and her own choreography, she said, “I really understand that that work influenced me,” adding that it gave her “a deep understanding of abstraction and structure and trust in those things.”

In considering a choreographer to respond to the Cunningham work, Sasha Okshteyn, the artistic director and producer of Beach Sessions, thought of Michelson because of her history with the Cunningham organization and for another reason, too. “I’ve just been a fan of her work for so long,” Okshteyn said. “I was like, that would be an amazing duet.”

The Rockaway performance will be the third iteration of “Beach Birds.” The original, set to a score by Cage — it won’t be played at the beach, which provides its own score — was created for the proscenium stage. In 1993, it became a film, “Beach Birds for Camera,” directed by Elliot Caplan. (The film will be screened Friday, with other dances on the sand, as part of Rockaway Film Festival at Arverne Cinema.)

In digging through Cunningham’s notes about the dance, Lent realized that the adaptation from stage to camera was more dramatic than she first thought. While the underlying structure for “Beach Birds” is about space divided into four sections, each version started differently.

“Camera space is entirely different than the proscenium space,” she said. “Also, he added three dancers, including myself, three people that had not been included in the stage dance for various reasons. It was more than just making a film of ‘Beach Birds.’ So therefore, I felt that opened the possibility to make a new version for a new venue.”

Cunningham saw “Beach Birds” as a nature study, not just of birds but of people — and also of perspective. “One of the things that I love so much on shores,” Cunningham said in David Vaughan’s “Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years,” is “the way you are looking at a rock and you go around it, and it looks different each time, as though it were alive, too.”

The dancers were uniformly costumed in leotards and tights, designed by painter Marsha Skinner, in which the top — a portion of the collarbone extending to the arms and gloved hands, is black — while the rest is white. The new version for the beach is a rash guard top and shorts.

Michael Cole, an original dancer in the work who also assisted with the staging, said Cunningham was mysterious during the creation of “Beach Birds.” At an early rehearsal, he handed out satin gloves.

“He told us to keep our fingers close together, including our thumbs, as one unit,” he said. “It was like, what is happening? This is so weird.”

But those gloves are key. A series of works by Skinner featuring brush strokes, some winglike, preceded the dance. “Her reason for the black gloves and that black stripe was to have a continuous line like the ink in her paintings,” Lent said. “The dancers were instructed to not let their fingers spread — to be a wingtip, essentially. And even just the shaping of the arms, it has that sort of bow of the wing.”

At Rockaway, the dance will begin with a prologue as the performers start out on a rocky jetty and make their way down to the sand. Some of the movement is limited; jumping is hard on sand because you can’t get the same power as pushing off from a floor. “But the jumps that we are doing, like these little hitch kicks on the edge of the water or with the sand are pretty great,” Lent said. “It stirs things up!”

Skips have become delicate, sand-skimming runs. Relevés, when dancers rise to their toes, are problematic: Feet sink into the sand. Lent said, “We eliminated quite a few relevés because it’s just a lot of effort that doesn’t actually read.”

What does read? Stillness — especially in contrast to the lively environment. “On the beach, there’s the waves and the wind and the birds and the sounds,” Lent said. “So just a still figure is quite striking.”

Nyah Malone, one of the dancers, said of dancing on sand: “It’s a stage that’s slipping out from beneath you every time a wave crashes to the shore. The hardest part was really getting your bearings — like trying to balance on one foot. I couldn’t really turn.”

But the upsides are more than worth it. “It was visually just stunning being in the water and then also just having this feeling of the sand and the sun,” she said. “And the water coming up around your ankles. It was really, really cool. I definitely felt like a beach bird. I felt like a sea gull.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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