Pigeons have been a vital feature of New York's skyline for decades, even centuries, particularly in neighborhoods like those in Brooklyn, where thousands live in coops on the roofs of tall buildings, carefully overseen by their trainers, called pigeon fanciers.
Loosed from their kit to fly as a flock, tracing the sky in manifold circular patterns high above, the birds are graceful, athletic, and organically self-organized. Neighborhood onlookers know that these winged performers won't dance in unison like so many Esther Williams synchronized swimmers, but their rhythms and morphing geometry are mesmerizing, open, even thrilling.
The assembled flock of 500 New Yorkers piled onto stadium bleachers in the Brooklyn Navy Yard will undoubtedly re-think the much maligned city pigeon when they see performance artist Duke Riley and his cast of 2,000 being loosed and directed in this latest production by Creative Time. Confidently striding high atop his floating coop co-op in Wallabout Bay, Riley's "Fly By Night" employs Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Williamsburg Bridge as backdrop to these glittering dancers.
You may breed them for beauty or speed, or even personality, as there are discernable differences among these Homers, Rollers, Fantails, and Russian high flyers - just a handful of the 100 or so species that most fanciers work with. Flying up the East Rivers' great broad way in all their glory, none of these birds needs a boa; they're simply covered in feathers.
Uncontrived and with a stage craft, set design and costumery bowing to the Navy Yard's industrial ship-building past, "Fly By Night" collapses a time continuum. Certain audience members are not quite sure how it will play out as the sun is setting gently behind Manhattan and neighbors slide into their posts, smiling and waving to familiar faces, taking a quick nip from a deftly procured flask, cheeks pink in the spring chill.
As the darkness draws nearer questions remain: Will these chuckling pigeons return once they are released? Will these LED lights attached to their legs actually be visible when they are flying? Will the crowd be easily hushed by the whistles and birdcalls and long poled flags drawing generous arcs in silhouette across the sky?
Yes to all three, and as the birds flood forward into the dusk sky this audience of chatty, catty New Yorkers keep their tongues docked and their murmuring on mute to respect this natural aviary array. Presently cell phones are hoisted aloft.
One tries not to use the word "enchanting" too often, but this performance piece pairing man and nature seamlessly pierces veils between theater, anthropology, history, lore, nature, spectacle and dreamy reverie.
Witnessing this public performance of an age-old choreographed dance in the newly night sky with an international gaggle of sudden pigeon fanciers, you may wonder what else you have overlooked in the mundanity of walking to the subway.
These are the famously dissed New York pigeons of your daily life after all. But here they are center stage and such splendid and appealing dancers. Somewhere in the silently rythmic fluttering, the staccato and swooping baritone bird-calling, and the swimming of orbital troupes through the blueness, these illuminated pigeons transform into multiple schools of fish that you gaze upward to see.
Having made that break with reality the mind can wander to nautical fables and long-distance cables and whirling dervishes and the regal pageantry and circular sweeps of Balanchine, who ironically was working on a ballet called "The Birds of America" at the time of his death.
It is another New York story delivered for free in the public sphere. The movements of the birds in their self-selected formations - many are Rileys' personally but others are borrowed or purchased from other fanciers - easily command your attention and create a momentary communal appreciation in the stands.
The gentle lapping of water in the bay is punctured by sea-faring whooping and wrastlin' whistles of the trainer-in-chief, augmented by the low blasting horn of a distant ship in the bay, or your head. This is perfectly public space and Mr. Riley's deft imaginings and knowledge of maritime traditions guide you calmly to your own grounded reality while launching you gently aflight through space, and time.
Duke Riley's Fly By Night performance for Creative Time at the Brooklyn Navy Yard takes place on weekends, Friday through Sunday. May 7th through June 12th. Click HERE for full schedule and to get your FREE tickets.
Our very special thanks to RJ Rushmore for his help and expertise.
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