Beach Birds, Duo, and Grosse Fugue

Lyon Opera Ballet at the Joyce Theater on Saturday, March 14.

One of the best-known classical ballets is Swan Lake, so there’s something kind of funny about a modern dance troupe performing a work titled “Beach Birds.” They have little in common, of course—just a shared tendency to adapt avian mannerisms into the syntax of their own movement. The ballerinas glide across the stage, gently raising and lowering their arms like swans alighting on the water, and the modern dancers cock their heads and dart headlong this way and that like gulls racing across the sand. In a way, the swan and the gull embody the different styles: one graceful above all else; the other less elegant, perhaps, but energetic and spirited and free.

“Beach Birds” was choreographed by Merce Cunningham, who died last year and is remembered as one of the giants of modern dance. The other two works on the program—“Duo,” choreographed by William Forsythe, and “Grosse Fugue,” choreographed by Maguy Marin—felt slight, overshadowed by comparison, but still interesting. All three made me wish I knew more about modern dance.

“Duo” is a work for two women who don’t dance with each other so much as alongside each other, sometimes in unison, sometimes staggered, with the second seeming to echo the first. The steps are sort of cold, maybe even academic, but I did enjoy the dancers’ movements on the floor, lying horizontal but angling their limbs and hips in sharp, dramatic ways. (One perk of the cheap seats: The relative height and distance give you a better view of that kind of thing.)

Four women dance in “Grosse Fugue,” completely independent from one another but picking up one another’s steps, playing with intervals. It is, in other words, a kind of physical representation of the musical form, with subjects and countersubjects—visual counterpoint. As a fugue aficionado, I couldn’t help but appreciate that, though sometimes the idea was more interesting than the execution: the slightly crazed, running steps became a shade monotonous after a while.

Part of me was surprised that “Beach Birds” didn’t become monotonous. I believe it was the longest work on the program, and it features virtually no music: just continuous rainsticks and occasional brief interjections from the piano—composer John Cage at his John Cagiest. But the changes and introductions of new material in the dance, though subtle, always held my attention. The movements aren’t always representational, per se, but they evocatively capture what it’s like to watch birds as they dive about in their own mysterious world. The groupings change; the birds shift direction suddenly for no apparent reason; their movements aren’t always fluid but the swift deliberation makes them graceful all the same.

The costumes are brilliant: skin-tight body suits, all white but for the thick band of black encasing the arms and stretching across the chest. The black reaches all the way down to the fingertips (the dancers wear gloves), exaggerating their wingspan, so to speak. Simple but strong, the look calls attention to the dancers’ arms, their angles. The effect is mesmerizing. “Beach Birds” was the first Merce Cunningham work I’d ever seen in person, and I doubt I will forget it.