Talking with Choreographer Monica Bill Barnes
What if the visual and aural worlds collided, and we were able to listen to dance and watch radio? What would it look like? How would it sound? As one of 1,083 grants announced today, the Monica Bill Barnes & Company contemporary dance troupe will continue its collaboration with Ira Glass, host of This American Life on NPR. Barnes and Glass first joined forces when Glass invited the choreographer’s company to perform in This American Life Live!, a one-night variety show of sorts that was beamed live at 600 movie theaters across the U.S. and Canada. From there, the relationship blossomed into One Radio Host, Two Dancers, now on tour with Barnes, Glass, and dancer Anna Bass. The latest Art Works grant will help support this unlikely creative team’s latest venture, a new work tentatively titled Running in Circles. In anticipation of today’s grant announcement, we caught up with Barnes to hear her thoughts on her performance philosophy, the marriage of dance and radio, and her hopes for Running in Circles. Below is an edited version of her words.
How It All Began
Ira and I got the idea that we would love to do something together. I was able to participate in the live show we did as a cinema event in May 2012…. I kind of felt like, ‘Well, that worked. Is there anything that the two of us could do that would really combine what we do but in a way that kind of unusual? What would a radio dance show look like? So we mounted the show as a grand experiment in Philadelphia. We had two performances there, and it just felt like something that was really worthwhile. It felt like the sum of its parts were adding up to more. So we’ve continued to work on it, and we’re now doing a national tour of it.
I feel like there’s something about this process that is really making me think about how to present and create dance in a way that is outside of a traditional dance concert…[We are] somehow dealing more directly with character and even some elements of the clown and tragedy and comedy and trying to build a show that in some way requires no understanding of dance as an art form, that feels open to interpretation. With Ira, it’s such an incredible process [to] figure out how to shape a show that really has a journey, uses language, is more literal because of the language, but also maintains a real abstract quality so that the audience feels like they are really able to discover meaning and have their own experience, or feel like they can reflect on what we’re offering.
On Experimenting with Interdisciplinary Models
It was such a natural shift from a traditional dance model for me into something that feels more inclusive of other elements. Anna and I have a number of duets, and we were beginning to get invitations to perform for comedy festivals and literary events. I started to notice that these duets seemed to fit into other worlds really naturally. I also recognized that for a lot of our touring, we ask a lot of a theater. We drop rain curtains and boxes come flying from the catwalk. I feel like my modern dance show was always trying to create environments and characters and not wanting the audience just to see the body moving…. So I think actually shifting, or taking a slight step to the left out of a traditional dance model, and looking and seeing what other opportunities there are and also what other audiences are out there has really been so natural and a long time in coming. When I look back over the last five years, we've been making this shift all along.
Connecting through Dance
My instinct has always been that people understand dance better than they think they do, because I feel like we all understand and have an immediate reaction to body language. For me, what's exciting about creating dances is to take body language and things that are familiar and really blow them up to more metaphor or really big movements next to really small gestures [that are] somehow still rooted in the ability to understand what's happening just by watching the physicality.
[Costume designer] Kelly Hanson, who I've been working with for the last 13, 14 years, does such a brilliant job of costuming us like real people. When we step out on stage, I don't think anybody thinks, "What beautiful dancers those are!" Somehow we're always costumed in a way to telegraph that these are people going through things that we all go through.
What's feeling very successful about the show that we've made with Ira is that there's no sort of through-line to it other than it's very specific stories and very specific dances that add up to a lot of familiar moments. At a certain point, it feels like the audience is having a real sense of empathy. Once you're invested, then the work can really carry you far afield and go into metaphor and some unexplainable moments.
Working with Comedy
I feel like every work I've ever made has to do with the basic theme that we're attempting something that's just a bit beyond our grasp and we're slightly falling short. And that is almost always where the comedy comes in. Every time I've premiered something, I have always though, “This is the deep and meaningful moment,” “This is the part where people are really going to relate.” And that is always the moment where we get the biggest laughs. As a performer to be in front of an audience, attempting and failing and picking yourself up and trying it again, there's a certain humbling element to that action, to that kind of performing. But what's also interesting as a performer is when you're dealing with comedy, you can literally hear the audience responding. There's something so supportive about knowing they're paying attention, knowing that they're sort of on the road with you. I think it's really the reason why I put elements of comedy in my work. I've always been a performer in the work [in addition to the choreographer], and so my only experience of the work is how it feels like it's going from the stage. To have people laugh at minimum means they haven't fallen asleep. You know they're responding, and it's a way for me as a choreographer to gauge what's happening out there and have some sense of following their experience. Laughter is one of the only ways I will ever be able to hear an audience's response, so it kind of seems natural to me that that is something that I rely on in my work.
Hopes for Running in Circles
My hope [for Running in Circles] is that it's broader than any single show. [We’re] trying to develop work in which it almost feels more like a play with a cast of characters, that they're individuals going through experiences or journeys of sorts… There's some sense of concrete identity, like we've all had that really humbling moment that happens in front of a lot of people, or that kind of relationship. [We’re] trying to find very little ideas in the midst of a larger abstract work.
I'm so curious to have a show that runs for a longer period. It has been my lifetime dream to have previews, to be able to continue to test and rehearse with a performance every night where we can really understand what we're making. I feel like the process that Anna and I and the designer can go through [by] being in the same room together night after night, and really being able to understand a work in front of a live audience is invaluable to us. Anna and I, as performers, are so ready to have a different performance experience of multiple shows. We perform all the time…but so much of our performance skill set has to do with how are we constantly shifting and adjusting our performance for new spaces, for a new configuration, for new lighting. We're such present performers because we've never been here before and we won’t ever be here again. To be able to have some sort of repetition in our performing live will really have a profound effect on us understanding this particular piece but also understanding ourselves as performers.