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Big Bird

It may be unusual to imagine an ostrich in New York City, but it's certainly not unbelievable. New York's not all pigeons and rats. Last winter, for example, an alligator nicknamed Godzilla was captured in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. A few months later, after severe flooding, Sally the Sea Lion floated to the top of her tank and roamed the Central Park Zoo freely before returning to her enclosure.

 So, when the ostrich first appears in Isaac Mizrahi and Nico Muhly's delightful “Third Bird,” which situates a sequel to Prokofiev's “Peter and the Wolf” in Central Park, it might as well be just another Tuesday in the city.

Performance

“Third Bird” by Isaac Mizrahi, Nico Muhly, and Dance Heginbotham

Place

Works & Process at the Guggenheim, .New York, NY, December 15, 2023

Words

Cecilia Whalen

“Third Bird” by Isaac Mizrahi, Nico Muhly, and Dance Heginbotham. Photograph by David Andrako, courtesy of Works & Process at the Guggenheim

“Third Bird” had its second run last week at Works & Process at the Guggenheim Museum, following a run of “Peter and the Wolf,” which Mizrahi has also designed, directed, and narrated since 2007. Both “Peter and the Wolf” and “Third Bird” feature choreography by John Heginbotham and are danced to live accompaniment by Ensemble Connect with direction by Michael P. Atkinson.  

The story takes place in "a different part of Central Park," Mizrahi clarifies at the beginning. A tall, warty, gorgeous tree grows out of stage left, and the New York skyline is silhouetted against the backdrop. John Heginbotham sits high above the silhouette. Dressed in white, he is the Moon who gazes omnisciently down upon the cast. The Moon character was originated in 2022 by the late Gus Solomons Jr., and the production this evening was dedicated to him.

Like in “Peter and the Wolf”, each character in “Third Bird” has its own instrumental voice. The Ostrich, played by Daniel Pettrow, bolts across the stage to the sound of the bass clarinet, a fitting addition to Prokofiev's original instrumentation. 

“Third Bird” by Isaac Mizrahi, Nico Muhly, and Dance Heginbotham. Photograph by Brian Lawson

Just as Muhly-after-Prokofiev's musical characterization allows the audience—in particular, children—to learn the different sounds of the orchestra, Heginbotham's choreography provides introduction to different dance styles. Birdie (the bright Maxfield Haynes) is balletic; Cat (the expansive Zach Gonder) is jazzy. When Duck (Marjorie Folkman) is captured stealthily by Cat, the two burst into a heated ballroom duet.  

“Third Bird” provides some recap of “Peter and the Wolf,” along with some alternate endings. Mizrahi reminds the audience of Duck's unfortunate swallowing by Wolf, then invites Duck—who has since emerged—to describe her slimy journey in and out of the belly of the beast. Duck, sporting sunglasses, striped tights, and ridiculously large orange feet mimes in great detail her traumatic experience. 

Somehow, Duck, Mizrahi, and the other animals get on the subject of flying and it becomes unclear whether or not a duck can fly. An Ornithologist (Derrick Arthur, who sports a fishing vest labeled “Ologist”), overhears the conversation and offers that certainly, a duck should be able to fly, with a little help from her friends. Birdie gives a few pointers, and before she knows it, Duck is on her way. 

“Third Bird” by Isaac Mizrahi, Nico Muhly, and Dance Heginbotham. Photograph by Erick Munari

Meanwhile, to the merry laughter of the young audience, Ostrich darts back and forth. He is briefly pursued by the Zookeep (Kara Chan), and studied at a distance by the Ornithologist. What to do with an ostrich in the park? Not to worry, Mizrahi says, Ostrich plans to return to the zoo shortly. He'll see himself out. 

But in between laps, Ostrich sees something else. He slows down and stares into an imaginary pond. His big fluffy feathers ruffle in the breeze, and his long neck (a wonderful pink, sheer mask that grows from the top of Pettrow's head) bends over in examination. What is he looking at? The other characters gather round and lean in. He's looking at himself, they discover. Perhaps he's just curious; maybe he's self-conscious. It's alright, Mizrahi assures Ostrich: Not all birds look the same.

Cecilia Whalen


Cecilia Whalen is a writer and dancer from Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and holds a bachelor's degree in French. Currently, Cecilia is studying composition at the Martha Graham School for Contemporary Dance in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.

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