“It’s interesting how people talk about birding,” says Sasha Okshteyn, the artistic director and producer of Beach Sessions Dance Series, an annual event along New York’s Rockaway Beach. “You have to be really patient and follow your intuition in a way, but you’re never sure of what’s going to happen. You don’t know what you’re going to see.” That’s the mindset she hopes the audience brings to this year’s performance on Saturday: magic hour serving as lighting designer, shoreline for the stage. The ninth iteration of the summer program features not one but two innovative artists: the late Merce Cunningham, whose 1991 dance, Beach Birds, alights for the first time on sand, and Sarah Michelson, with a response shaped by her experience in the ’90s, as part of the broader Cunningham community. As with a rare pair of nesting falcons, some onlookers will make a pilgrimage and others will happen upon a magic moment. “I’ve been calling it a ‘natural occurrence,’ which is something that birders talk about,” Okshteyn says. “It’s something that you experience and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, what is this?’—especially for beachgoers. And then it comes and goes. It’s very ephemeral. I think that’s the beauty of it too.”
For Cunningham, a pioneering dancemaker with a decades-long career, collaborating with other artists was familiar territory. John Cage, his longtime companion, frequently composed music for dances—movement operating independently from sound being one of the choreographer’s hallmarks. Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol designed sets. Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons created a famously lumpy set of costumes. For Beach Birds, the artist Martha Skinner oversaw the black-and-white leotards and tights: white bodies with a stripe of black that ran across the shoulders and down each arm, delineating wingspan with a single calligraphic stroke. Beach Sessions revives the effect—with a swimwear riff—via custom-printed rash guards, white shorts, and black gloves. “There were some particular instructions that I remember about not letting your fingers splay apart, but to keep the fingers together so that the hand became an extension,” says former company member Patricia Lent, who staged this weekend’s version with fellow alum Rashaun Mitchell on behalf of the Merce Cunningham Trust. An injury kept Lent out of the original 1991 cast, but she joined two years later for Elliot Caplan’s film version, Beach Birds for Camera, which begins with a closeup of dancers’ torsos: arms outstretched, bodies gently swaying, as if riding a current of air.
“This is an eccentric project, there’s no doubt about it,” Lent says of bringing Beach Birds to the beach. The fact that it has already migrated from stage to screen helps pave the way for this latest iteration, Mitchell adds: “It’s not bound to the rules of the theater, so we can stretch it and amplify certain aspects.” The setting demands sly adaptations. For one thing, there are no entrances and exits when the Atlantic Ocean is the backdrop—the only wings belong to the errant birds overhead. Footfalls are muffled, taking away a sonic cue helpful for dancers when choreography doesn’t adhere to music. Repeated jumps prove difficult on soft sand; likewise, lifting to the ball of one’s foot in relevé fails to register when the ground gives way underneath, so the choreography has shifted in subtle ways. “But it’s remarkable how much you can do,” Lent says.
This year’s performers include a mix of recent graduates and seasoned Beach Sessions alums; Morgan Griffin, who joined as the event’s co-producer this year and first floated the idea of a Beach Birds revival, is dancing as well. Several of the original 1991 cast members moonlighted in the rehearsal studio, sharing recollections from Merce himself and teaching sections of the choreography. “Just to be able to watch that transmission process is really, really exciting,” says Mitchell, reflecting on a few favorite gestures: “I think about this specific leg-shaking movement that feels kind of like a flutter. I think about these beautiful head movements that are sharp and somehow animalistic.” But the avian world wasn’t the only inspiration for Beach Birds. The two trustees staging the work got to pore over Cunningham’s original notes, where he privately named each of the dance’s four sections. The first one is called Chess. “In the stage piece, when the curtain opens, they’re lined up in roughly two rows across the back, and he’s labeled each of the dancers with a chess piece,” Lent explains, marveling at the work’s underlying layers. “There’s a lot of stillness, but when they move, they move in roughly the same way that the chess piece would.”