Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Monica Bill Barnes: Awkward Singularity

Monica Bill Barnes
(photo by David Wilson Barnes)

Monica Bill Barnes: Awkward Singularity
by Komal Thakkar

Seeing a performance by Monica Bill Barnes & Company, you might be surprised by how much you laugh. When I saw Barnes & Company perform Luster, Mostly Fanfare, and Everything is getting better all the time at the Kennedy Center in May, I certainly did, enjoying her enthusiasm and the athleticism of her muscular body flying through space.

Barnes comes to dance by way of training in theater at the University of California in San Diego, where she also studied philosophy with an emphasis in ethics. After graduating, Barnes applied to law school but rethought her choices. Shifting gears, she moved to New York City, attending a summer dance program at the Alvin Ailey School. The routine, she found, was not for her. She wanted to make her own work.

“Philosophy asked me to articulate my understanding of ideas,” says Barnes. “Choreography is articulating your ideas through your movement, and what you’re judged on is your ability to be specific and communicative in expressing those ideas.”

Specificity and attention to detail, essential components of a successful work, are two factors that compel Barnes to the process of making dance. She deeply admires Bill Irwin, an American actor trained in dance and clowning, for the physical specificity in his work. Ira Glass, the creator and host of NPR’s This American Life, her current collaborator, exemplifies nuanced, detail-oriented practice in work that bears his unmistakable radio personality.

“Specificity and attention to detail help you clarify what kind of performer you are trying to be and help you become a distinctive artist,” she believes.

Barnes (front) in Parade
(photo by Steven Schreiber

How can she “step outside” of a piece and view it with a critical eye while actually dancing in it? Barnes explains the necessity this way: she doesn’t understand herself as an artist without having the opportunity to perform.

She recalls the horror she felt as she viewed one of her pieces from the audience.

“I recognized that if I were in it, I would have felt it reaching a standstill in its natural and logical progression while we were rehearsing it in the studio. When I was watching it in the rehearsal process, I was taken by the distinctive, powerful performers. There’s a transformation that happens when you shift a dance from the studio to the stage and put it under lights in a formal setting. It’s not that I think I’m a great performer. I understand the work from inside out.” 

from Parade
(photo by Steven Schreiber)

Working humor into a dance can prove to be even more challenging. While Barnes doesn’t usually aim for humor, it does occur--frequently--when it’s unintended. The awkwardness and tragedy of the human condition interest her more.

So many dance artists deal with grace and beauty, she says, that she does not feel the need to contribute more of that type of work.

“I’m less interested in seeing photographs of iconic figures and beauty than I am of seeing photos of real people. You can get confused between one beautiful person and another. There is a distinctive, identifiable singularity that is specific to an awkward individual.”

“Most of the time the audience laughs is when something has gone wrong onstage,” says Barnes. “I never feel like the audience is laughing at us though. I feel like a lot of the laughter comes from empathy. My hope is that laughter serves as a response to us in these moments of awkwardness and humiliation that which they can relate to on a very personal level--a shared experience.”

Mostly Fanfare, set to songs performed by Nina Simone, deals with the struggles of showmanship and resilience. Barnes and her dancers wear large white feather headdresses reminiscent of a vaudeville act and incorporate large, sweeping movement and circus-like stunts in which they balance chairs in their mouths.

In Anna Bass’s solo, the dancer stacks large brown packing boxes on top of one another and then attempts to lift this tower of boxes. Clearly, the odds are stacked against her. Suddenly, boxes pelt her from the wings as the determined dancer struggles to carry on.

“When Anna gets hit with a box, she usually gets a laugh,” says Barnes. In this moment, she recognizes the humbling experience of being a performer, attempting beauty, failing miserably and somehow recovering.

Bass recalls surprise at the audience’s laughter during Mostly Fanfare's premiere. What’s funny in one city, Barnes says, might not work that way in another. To their amazement, one audience let out a collective groan when the boxes hit Bass.

Luster, an autobiographical duet, highlights Barnes’ long-standing onstage partnership with Bass, celebrating ten years of sacrifice, triumphs, and endurance. It opens with a film showing how much they travel and prepare, the less-than-glamorous, exhausting details of packing, unpacking, performing and repeating the process over and over again. At one point, Barnes and Bass, dressed in running shoes and sequined dresses, literally run in circles. For Bass, Luster is a virtual archive of their decade-long experiences in making dance.

“When we show up to a theater,” she says, “we put the set together and preset the props with the help of the production staff. We’re very hands on, and the piece reflects that about us.”

Barnes connected with Ira Glass after he attended a performance during her 2011 run at The Joyce Theater. He wrote her an email, and they began regularly conversing about their work. She admires how he uses radio in unique, innovative ways. “That’s what I aspire to do with dance,” she says.

Together, they created a performance for This American Life Live! before a live theater audience including Glass’s usual narration of stories and segments where Barnes and Bass would dance. Delighted by the project’s success, they next created a full-length show called Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host, which they are currently touring.

“Language forces the audience to think about the movement in a different way,” Barnes says. Without language, choreography and music are the only ways that the audience can discern meaning.

“The challenge in this collaboration is to ensure that movement doesn’t become illustrative of language and that language doesn’t become descriptive of the movement.” 

Glass and Barnes continually rework their respective contributions to assure that neither movement nor language dominates. Their collaboration, like a performer’s career, is a continuous dialogue, a constantly evolving learning process.


Trailer for Monica Bill Barnes & Company's October 2012 season
NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
MC'ed by Ira Glass


Monica Bill Barnes is a New York City based choreographer and performer. Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Barnes moved to New York in 1995 after receiving her B.A. in Philosophy and Theater from the University of California at San Diego. Before she decided to become a choreographer Barnes studied on scholarship at the Alvin Ailey School, was a member of the high school debate team, played volleyball and wrote bad plays. Since pursuing choreography as a livelihood, she has created thirteen evening-length dance works, numerous site-specific events and multiple cabaret numbers for her company, Monica Bill Barnes & Company. Favorite New York performance venues include The Joyce Theater, Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, Symphony Space, NYU Skirball Center and Dixon Place. Lincoln Center Institute invited Barnes to tour two of her shows, This ain’t no Rodeo! (2003-2005) and Suddenly Summer Somewhere (2009-2010) throughout the tri-state school system as part of their Repertory Season. Barnes has been an invited Guest Artist at the American Dance Festival, Bates Dance Festival, North Carolina School of The Arts, Vassar College, Virginia Commonwealth University, Connecticut College, The College At Brockport, Florida State University, James Madison University, University of Michigan, Emory University, Steps on Broadway, Peridance and Dance New Amsterdam. In addition to stage works, she has created several site-specific works and theater productions, including From my Mother’s Tongue (Dancing in the Streets), Game Face (SITELINES Festival), Limelight (Philadelphia Live Arts Festival) and several new works for The San Diego Dance Theater’s Trolley Dances. Recent projects include commissions for Parsons Dance (Love, oh Love) and The Juilliard School (The way it feels). Barnes was thrilled to be a part of This American Life Live! on May 10, 2012 alongside her favorite radio show host Ira Glass and other fabulous guests.

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