Beach Birds - Merce Cunningham


Fault Lines on the Coastline: Merce Cunningham’s Beach Birds

Carol Teitelbaum

Without ever leaving the stage, eleven dancers in black and white drift serenely, sometimes in small groups, sometimes alone. If this is the seaside, Beach Birds, choreographed by Merce Cunningham in 1991, finds contemplation in it. As the Lyon Opera Ballet gears up to revive this landmark work, the opening scene of Beach Birds for Camera, an expanded version with three additional performers, is presented below – the work of director Elliot Caplan, who filmed it in former industrial buildings in New York. 
Staging Beach Birds in Lyon this season is Carol Teitelbaum, a member of the Cunningham company from 1986 to 1993. For CN D Magazine, she shared her memories of the original creation process.

What can be difficult for dancers is that we don’t rehearse Beach Birds to music, and music doesn’t inform the movement – the reference points are more visual. This is the case for most of Merce Cunningham’s pieces, with a few exceptions. For example, I reprised Septet (1953), danced to a piano piece by Erik Satie, which is one of the last of his choreographies built primarily on sound cues. In Beach Birds, John Cage’s music offers an ambient, natural sound that provides a real sense of duration. 

Throughout his career, Merce was very interested in time. He was known for making his dancers move faster and slower than seemed humanly possible. In many respects, very little happens at the start of Beach Birds, and everything depends on our internal clock – which develops as the dancers work through the piece. In this opening section, Merce gave us a cue at 45 seconds from the start, but I realized that the second group, who have to start a phrase at a minute and a half, has no cue: they have to do everything by feeling that time lapse. 

When you’re dancing this piece, the performers behind you may be doing something else, but it’s impossible to know. Every dancer is in their own world, busy with their own movements. Merce liked things to overlap, to respond to each other on different levels. I realized this when I taught the piece to students in a workshop in 2016, and again this year at the Opéra de Lyon. If you see the piece on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, the performance won’t be the same. He made these variations possible with Beach Birds

Incredibly, I have no recollection of having these insights when he first created the piece with us back in 1991. I don’t recall if he specifically asked us to slow down, to move faster … But I remember that we stayed in the studio for a long time with the first elements of the piece. There are eight dancers who are on stage from the start. We executed the same movement phrase without starting at the same time and our way of performing that phrase varies wildly, because we all understood Merce’s directions differently. At the time, he wasn’t interested in evening out these differences.  

Merce was very curious about the way the camera looked at things differently from the human eye. He made a few choreographic changes for the film, thinking that here we needed to “clean up” the movements a little, that here we could get two people to do the same thing. The space, the trajectories, are different from the stage version. I say to the dancers who are learning the piece: don’t be fooled! It’s become a proper piece in its own right, but it wasn’t easy for me to be in front of the camera. That lens doesn’t give you a second chance. 

What I remember most about Beach Birds is watching Merce dance. He was coming to the end of his choreographic career, and was showing the steps less and less. The generation of dancers who came after me had an uncanny ability to read his intentions from the little he showed. In my day, he conveyed a lot through the quality of his arms or his explanations. For Beach Birds, for example, he told us to keep our fingers glued together: he wanted the thumb to be with the other fingers and the hands in continuity with the arm. 

For many years, we didn’t have access to Merce Cunningham’s notes, and he didn’t discuss them with us dancers. He seemed to just come up with the movements. In the notes for Beach Birds there’s a range of verbs like “shaking” and “convulsing,” which are not really what birds do. 

I wouldn’t call this piece a nature study. Some of his works can seem to echo the natural world, and you could say here that the costumes make the title almost literal, but I don’t really want to go in that direction. Merce Cunningham had a deep conviction that everything humans do is about humans. There’s no division or conflict here between humans and nature. 

An interview with Léa Poiré 


Léa Poiré is an independent journalist based in Paris and Lyon. After studying choreography and being in charge of the dance section and co-editor in chief for Mouvement magazine, she is now working in cultural journalism, media education, and she collaborates regularly with choreographer Mette Edvardsen as a researcher. She is also the editor of CN D magazine. 


Beach Birds for Camera 

Directed by Elliot Caplan 

Choreography: Merce Cunningham 

Dancers: Helen Barrow, Kimberly Bartosik, Michael Cole, Emma Diamond, Victoria Finlayson, Frederic Gafner, Alan Good, David Kulick, Patricia Lent, Larissa McGoldrick, Randall Sanderson, Robert Swinston, Carol Teitelbaum, Jenifer Weaver 

Production: The Cunningham Dance Foundation 

Broadcast with the kind authorization of the Merce Cunningham Trust 


Beach Birds 

Choreography: Merce Cunningham 

With the dancers of the Lyon Opera Ballet 

April 16-21 in the Lyon Opera 

April 26 & 27 in Teatr Wielki w Łodzi, Lodz, Poland 

May 8 & 9 in Theater Im Pfalzbau, Ludwigshafen, Germany