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A Day at the Beach

What could be better than a performance of Merce Cunningham’s “Beach Birds” on the actual beach? On a rainy Saturday in late August, the clouds parted in time for a committed crowd of dance lovers to make way by subway and ferry to Rockaway Beach, and gather at Beach Street 108, where a band of confident dancers marched across the sand to perch themselves on the rocks of the jetty. Silhouetted by late afternoon, the dancers quietly transformed themselves into stiff-legged, twitchy headed birds. When they lifted their arms, draped in black evening length gloves, hands cupped, their limbs magically became wings.


“Beach Birds” by Merce Cunningham, A new arrangement staged by Patricia Lent and Rashaun Mitchell


The Beach Sessions Dance Series, Rockaway Beach, New York, August 26, 2023


Karen Hildebrand

Merce Cunningham's “Beach Birds.” A new arrangement for Beach Sessions Dance Series 2023. Rockaway Beach, Queens. Featured dancers left to right: Ryan Pliss, Christian Allen, Chaery Moon, Nyah Malone, Arielle François, Hannah Straney, Sienna Blaw, Marc Crousillat, Sarah Cecilia Bukowski. Photograph by Maria Baranova. Courtesy of Beach Sessions.

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Thanks to the Beach Sessions Dance Series, New Yorkers had the treat of a double beach bird feature. In addition to the live performance, “Beach Birds for Camera” aired the night before as part of the Rockaway Film Festival. Taken together, the two occasions provided the most perfect tutorial in Cunningham technique one could ask for.

“Beach Birds for Camera,” directed in 1993 by Eliott Caplan, draws the viewer close to the action as if part of the ensemble ourselves. Performing to piano and rainstick by John Cage, the older generation of Cunningham dancers, uniformly slender and narrow in the hip, are like multiples made with one cut. The white unitards capped with a stripe of black that spans the shoulders and arms, designed by Marsha Skinner, reveal every muscle. Shimmying chest and torso isolations render a ruffling of breast feathers; a perch in plié on relevé with heels together in first position, springs into a series of skittering jumps. The dancers hop on one leg to balance, the other leg held extended, quivering, for an excruciatingly long time. Little bird parties form in twos and threes as the flock interacts. One bird drags a leg around as if injured. In a particularly tender moment, a bird hovers in a slight stoop with his wings extended as another from behind settles her wings to rest ever so gently on top of his. With but a subtle tip of the head, she conjures a suggestion of dominance. The fourteen original performers that included Robert Swinston as well as Kimberly Bartosik, Michael Cole, Alan Good, David Kulick, and Carol Teitelbaum, who participated in the Beach Series reconstruction, are the epitome of movement clarity and precision.

Merce Cunningham's “Beach Birds.” A new arrangement for Beach Sessions Dance Series 2023. Rockaway Beach, Queens. Photographs by Julie Lemberger

What happens when such a fine bird study moves out of a controlled studio environment into the sand, sun, water, and wind of the beach, not to mention the occasional roar of a jet from nearby JFK airport? For Beach Sessions, Patricia Lent and Rashaun Mitchell arranged Cunningham’s original work on a new cast of eleven, updated for inclusivity and body diversity more properly reflective of 2023: Christian Allen, Sienna Blaw, Sarah Cecilia Bukowski, Marc Croussillat, Arielle François, Morgan Griffin, Claude Cj Johnson, Nyah Malone, Chaery Moon, Ryan Pliss, and Hannah Straney. The original white unitards were switched out for water resistant rash guards and shorts. With every crisp relevé and pique arabesque destined to sink into the sand, and the ever moving tide threatening to knock off-center the most rock solid of balances, I’m surprised the dance didn’t lose clarity. Instead, the white ruffle of surf that served as backdrop and a glimmering sun gave the 28-minute performance an extra sparkle. It was like black and white film brought suddenly into technicolor. I easily lost sight of the dancers as anything other than spectacular shore birds in their natural habitat.

Sarah Michelson, “A Response.” A commission for Beach Sessions Dance Series 2023. Rockaway Beach, Queens. Photograph by Maria Baranova. Courtesy of Beach Sessions.

It's hard to imagine how such a stunning showing might benefit from a response. That the Beach Sessions organizers had invited choreographer Sarah Michelson to do so was either lost on the dwindling crowd—or they, like me, had trouble finding her. The Bessie Award winning McArthur fellow who spent time at the Cunningham studio during the “Beach Birds” era, offered a coda that could well have been titled, “Disheveled Beach Birds.” Her cheeky rendition began from the boardwalk where she posed upside down, legs sticking out from a trash container. She and her dancers cavorted in a copy of the Beach Birds’ black evening gloves with white bikinis marred by black tar that reminded me of birds drenched by an oil spill. The ending scene was a tender musical ode to Cunningham and the generations of dancers he trained. A little sloppy, but heartfelt. I couldn’t help but mourn a dance world bereft of the artistry of Merce Cunningham. 

Sarah Michelson, “A Response.” A commission for Beach Sessions Dance Series 2023. Rockaway Beach, Queens. Photograph by Maria Baranova. Courtesy of Beach Sessions.

Karen Hildebrand

Karen Hildebrand is former editorial director for Dance Magazine and served as editor in chief for Dance Teacher for a decade. An advocate for dance education, she was honored with the Dance Teacher Award in 2020. She follows in the tradition of dance writers who are also poets (Edwin Denby, Jack Anderson), with poetry published in many literary journals and in her book, Crossing Pleasure Avenue (Indolent Books). She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Originally from Colorado, she lives in Brooklyn.


Wendy Perron

Beautiful review. Maybe only a poet could have given this performance justice. I wasn’t able to see it so I especially appreciate the details—of both the old film and the new performance. I could feel the sun, the sand, and Cunningham’s connection to nature. Thank you.


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