Beach Birds for Camera

1992, 30:01 min, color and b&w, sound

Elliot Caplan's 35-mm film adaptation of Beach Birds, a dance work originally choreographed for the stage, begins with Merce Cunningham outlining his approach to dance for the camera, and thus his vision for how movement behaves and how we see it. He explains that the piece is choreography adapted for the camera, which extends the sense of what dance can be. Cunningham emphasizes that stage and camera do not compete.

Beach Birds for Camera was filmed in 1991 in two different settings: Kaufman Astoria Studios and Industria Superstudio, both in New York City. One is filmed in black-and-white and the other in color. The piece opens with a close-up of the torsos and outstretched arms of dancers in black-and-white costumes designed by Martha Skinner. The dance is accompanied by Four3, a piece written by John Cage for Cunningham's 1991 Beach Birds. Four3, based on Erik Satie's Vexations, was played on two pianos, one in the hall and one outside, and a violin playing held tones. All four musicians added to the ethereal quality of the soundscape by playing rainsticks. As the stark opening notes of Four3 sound, the camera zooms out and the viewer sees that their knees are slightly bent and their arms are swaying. As the piece progresses, there are few moments of complete synchronization of the dancers' movements. Instead the viewer's attention is pulled between different groupings of bodies moving at different paces. Unsurprisingly, the dancers read as birdlike. Their upper chests and arms are covered in black material in a way that suggests wings, while the rest of their bodies are clad in white. They stick their legs out and shake them, alternating between halting, jerky movements and fluid pliés. The audible shuffling of the dancers' feet at once complements and challenges the primacy of Cage's composition.

In Beach Birds for Camera, the camera does not maintain a fixed position, but invites the viewer to experience the stage as a de-centralized space very different from that favored by traditional ballet and many styles of modern dance. In Cunningham's choreography for camera, the center of the proscenium stage is no longer the most important point within the frame, and the viewer is invited to simultanouesly explore the activity that takes place in each of its component parts. The camera permits different levels of detail to manifest themselves. The dancers are shown fully or in part, close or far away. Cunningham describes the use of the camera as adding "flexibility to the space and in turn to the time in which the piece takes place."

In a 1994 essay titled Four Events That Have Led to Great Discoveries, Cunningham lists "work. . . done with video and film" as the third event. As in Cunningham's rendering of music as separate from choreography—so that the two are experienced as distinct elements of a dance piece in a way that facilitates critical engagement on the part of the audience—the choreographer emphasizes that the stage and camera do not compete: "each abides in its own territory."

Directed by Elliot Caplan. Choreography: Merce Cunningham. Music: John Cage, Four3. Costumes: Marsha Skinner. Produced by the Cunningham Dance Foundation. 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. Musicians: John D.S. Adams, Takehisa Kosugi, Michael Pugliese, David Tudor. Design for Film: Elliot Caplan, Tim Nelson, Matthew Williams; based on the stage design by Marsha Skinner. Costumes: Marsha Skinner. Editing: Elliot Caplan, Merce Cunningham. Director of Photography: Matthew Williams. Line Producer: Tim Nelson. Production Manager: Simon Egleton. Unit Manager: William Watkins. Steadicam Operator: Anastas N. Michos. First Assistant Camera: Gordon Huston. Second Assistant Camera: Felino Menez. Assistant Director: Steven Arenas. Dance Production Supervisor: Colman Rupp. Assistant Dance Production Supervisor: Webster Crittenden. Sound Recordist: Michael Barosky. Boom: Marc Cooper. Gaffer: David W. Stoddard. Best Boy: Gerald Saldo. Electric: Tim Kirkpatrick. Key Grip: Don Davis. Dolly Grip: James Catacosinos. Grip: Andrew Clarke. Art Director: Michael Shaw. Make-up: Meredith Soupios, Chris Bingham, Gail Goodman. Costumer: Suzanne Gallo. Scenic: Maximono Alvarez Jr., Matthew Bennett, Bob Mitchell, Howard Patlis, Chad Smith, Robert Vincent Smith. Rigging Crew: Eric M. Klein, Steven Lynch, Jon Mintz. Still Photographer: Lawrence Ivy. Production Assistants: Romolo Del Deo, Bryan Gibson, Scott Gibson, Antonio Ponti, Joel Resnikoff. Production Interns: Ines Aslan, Else Borrero. Filmed at: Kaufman Astoria Studios, Thomas James, Stage Manager; on location at: Industria Superstudio, Carla Popenfus, Studio Manager; December 1991, New York City.

Four was recorded at facilities provided by: The Department of Recording and Sound Design, Performing Arts Center, College of Fine Arts, The University of Texas at Austin; Edited at The McGill University Recording Studios; Mixed at Audio Z, Montreal, Canada. Music Recordist/Editor/Mixer: John D.S. Adams. Additional Music Mixer: Serge LaForest. Electronic Editor: John Rehberger. Assistant Editor: Lana Lin. Post-Production Consulting: Elliott Gamson. Negative Cutting: Immaculate Matching. Du Art Film Labs: Production Manager: Richard Skeete; Color Timer: Tom Salvatore; Titles: Debra Wakefield; Re-recording Mixer: Ken Hahn; Sound Editor: Pam Bartella; Insurance: Huntington T. Block.

For the Cunningham Dance Foundation: Artistic Director: Merce Cunningham; Executive Director: Art Becofsky; Assistant Artistic Director: Chris Komar; Assistant to the Choreographer: Robert Swinston; Media: Michael Bloom, Elliot Caplan, Michael F. Stier, David Vaughan; Company Services: Elsa Jacobson, Nicole Alkins, Aaron Copp, Susan Hugen, Kerry Kane, Patrick Leader, Eleanor Rouse, Amy Santos; Development: Michael E. Meagher, Constance A. Broberg, Laurie Carley, Anne Deutsch, Michelle M. Spivak; Finance: J. Tucker Baldwin, Joe Bariso, Julia Blackburn; Studio: Meg Harper, Alice Helpern, John Musall, Penelope Wyer. The Board of Directors, Cunningham Dance Foundation, Inc.: Chairman: Daniel Wolf. Filmed with Arriflex 535; Supplied by Camera Service Center, Peter Schnitzler.

Special Thanks to: Stephen C. Chamberlain, Arriflex Corporation; Bénédicte Pesle, Artservice International; New York City Ballet, Irwin Young, The New York City Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre, & Broadcasting. Funding Provided by: The Friends of Merce Cunningham Dance Company, JCT Foundation, Michael L. Salitan, M.D., Suzanne Well, The National Endowment for the Arts. Présenté le 15 Novembre 1992, par la Cinémathèque de la Danse à la Cinémathèque Française, en Première à l'Opéra de Paris Garnier. Produced by The Cunningham Dance Foundation, Inc. © Copyright 1992, All Rights Reserved, Cunningham Dance Foundation, Inc.


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