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Beach Birds – Lyon Opera Ballet [Merce Cunningham] (1991)

March 23, 2010

One hand flicks and the dance has begun. Scattered across the stage and facing no particular direction, the dancers have been swaying slightly as if floating on calm water, feet together, knees bent and arms stretched out to the side. The spandex outfits are black from the chest up, including the arms and hands and with the fingers firmly closed, the structure of a wing is suggestively apparent. The flicks occur as one outstretched hand switches from facing the floor to facing forward and the slight change in the human architecture spreads as each dancer follows in a seemingly random fashion. The first woman to flick slowly curves her upper body to the side moving her arm to curve forward and the dance and the music, Four3 by John Cage, begins to build momentum.

Credit: Michael O'Neill

When I first learned that Merce Cunningham used chance to choreograph his dances, I assumed the performance would be unfathomable. It is true that at times the sections of dances could be ordered randomly only a minute before the performance, but I imagined whole dances where the performer had each step in random sequence to be remembered and executed with perfect precision. I dreamed that in his effort to find true freedom from oneself and the influences of one’s environment there would be nothing more than incoherent movement and placement and only the uncalculated and miraculous unison would shine through. Now that I have finally seen a live full performance I can understand that Merce Cunningham is actually… not that different from what I have seen before. At least not this piece. And knowing his choreography came first, I can begin to understand the influence his choreography has had on the art of modern dance.

Credit: J.P. Maurin

The piece included many repeated phrases and formations in different locations and directions. There were also two duets between a man and a woman, indicating some sort of relationship that seemed more about mating than love with neither partner ever really touching yet forcefully invading each others space.

Credit: Andrea Mohin

The dance begins with a soft blue background that slowly darkens to a cobalt blue. Without seeing the title, the close proximity of the dancers, the head, leg and arm flicks, their quick, stealthy movement and the way they seem to avoid each other without acknowledging each other’s existence swiftly brings the audience to the illusion of watching a flock of birds. And as the background slowly fades to a light orange, the sun begins to set on another simple day for birds on the beach.

Credit: Michael Cavalca

Have you seen a performance of Merce Cunningham before?

Do you see contemporary artists borrowing from his technique or aesthetic?

How does this dance compare with other dances you have seen about a flock of birds?

How much do you miss the ocean right now?

March 13th, 8:00pm
Joyce Theater
New York City, New York

(some images found at Oberon’s Grove)

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