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The Humor and Hustle of Monica Bill Barnes
In sequined dresses and tennis shoes, Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass march up to the statue of Perseus with the Head of Medusa, and start doing jumping jacks to the sounds of '70s music. From there, they lead a small cohort through a French Renaissance gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then to an Italian Renaissance gallery for stretching, then to the American wing for squats. They are testing out possibilities for a new concept: The Museum Workout, which the Met Museum will present in its 2016–17 season. It's not a dance, per se, but it's movement as a means to connection. And in the past few years, that philosophy has taken this adventurous pair to some pretty unexpected places.
One such place was a live episode of the popular radio program This American Life. As a follow-up, Ira Glass, the program's famous host, offered to moderate post-show talks at performances of Monica Bill Barnes & Company. Barnes countered with a proposal to integrate him into a show instead. The result was Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host, a delightfully poignant evening of storytelling and dance that wasn't meant to last more than a few performances. But nearly three years later, the trio is still touring it across the country with dates booked through this summer. “It's been so much more than we ever thought it would be," Barnes says.
Barnes and her artistic partner Anna Bass share a similar awkward charm. Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz.
Most small dance companies are lucky for the occasional chance to show their work to intimate audiences out of town. But the popularity of Three Acts has exposed tens of thousands of viewers to Barnes' singular blend of vaudeville, variety show, slapstick and showmanship. “A large part of my mission is to bring in audiences who aren't as familiar with dance," she says, which is one reason the collaboration with Glass was such a good fit. From the beginning, Barnes has been intentional about the impact she wants to make, and tenacious about creating a business model that allows dance to be not just a lifestyle but a living.
After completing her MFA at New York University in 1997, Barnes started a “company" (her air quotes), which basically meant “making solos for anyone who would watch." Her goal was to sustain herself financially entirely through dance, which she managed to do after only two years, with “a combo of the most ridiculous work you could imagine." If she got a teaching gig in Virginia, she'd call schools in a 300-mile radius to offer master classes and performances. If a school three hours away accepted, she'd spend her entire fee on gas to get there. In other words, she hustled.
She danced for other artists, like Guta Hedewig and Allyson Green, and started making duets and quartets. For a long time, she got asked “Is the company ever going to get bigger?" as if an increase in size would indicate an increase in seriousness. “It's intentionally smaller," she says, noting that she has always believed in paying her dancers fairly. “Partially for finances but also because I think you identify more. In a smaller group you can see individuals better."
Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Barnes.
In recent years, the individual that cannot be missed is Bass, who started working with Barnes in 2003 and is now her associate artistic director. “We discovered that our physicality and instinct and impulses are so similar," Bass says. They share an uncanny sense of charmingly awkward swagger. Onstage, they portray characters—overeager hosts, cocky high-rollers or corporate businessmen out for a good time, as in their most recent show, Happy Hour, a weekly after-work performance complete with cocktails, karaoke and a raffle. It's fun, and funny. Humor, perhaps more than anything else, is Barnes' signature. But dance audiences aren't generally primed to laugh, so to let them know it's okay, Barnes and Bass borrow a trick from comedians like Louis C.K. and Bill Burr.
“Comedians tend to present themselves with a lot of self-deprecation," Barnes says. If they do it well and with confidence, it's a joy to laugh at them. “You can't laugh at somebody that you're worried about," she adds, explaining, “We give the audience permission to laugh at us because beneath it all, they know that we're fine." As in comedy, the humor is the real-time feedback that lets you know you've hooked an audience: When you hear the laughter, Barnes says, “you know they understood."
Audience enjoyment is the raison d'être of the company. “For me the purpose of making a show is to connect with an audience," says Barnes. “And if the show fails to connect…that's our fault." Unlike some choreographers for whom steps are sacred, with Barnes, the moves come second. “She privileges the experience over everything," observes Robert Saenz de Viteri, who joined the company to help manage Three Acts and stayed on in a role created for him as creative producing director. “The choreography is just material."
Photo by Mallory Lynn, Courtesy Barnes.
Yet that connection takes different shapes when the duo performs Three Acts one night in a 3,000-seat hall and Happy Hour a few days later for a small audience in a room that fits 70. The dramatic shift is by design. “There is a really strategic eye on not being redundant," says Barnes. The obvious choice after Three Acts, given its reception and box office receipts, would have been to capitalize on the concept and launch version 2.0. Happy Hour, in many ways, is counterintuitive. But it has led to exciting new partnerships, such as with the Ace Hotel, which presented Three Acts in Los Angeles in the fall and is now discussing bringing Happy Hour to some of its properties.
“Partnering with the Ace is really asking us to think about the show in a different way," says Barnes. They've brainstormed with hotel executives about venues, audiences and even ticket prices. She loves working with a business because it looks at dance differently—just as Barnes has done from the beginning.
Part of her longevity comes from operating like a business herself (though the company is a nonprofit). Barnes, Bass and Saenz de Viteri all draw full-time salaries; Kelly Hanson, their costume and set designer, and Jane Cox, their lighting designer, are part-time contractors, and all of them receive annual raises. With the help of Three Acts, the company now has a savings account, which “just lets you sleep better at night," says Barnes.
But this financial security only comes from being unafraid to take big risks, and by being patient enough to give quirky ideas generous gestation periods. The impending museum workout, two years in the making, is another such gamble, but one that has already earned the enthusiasm of curators. “The museum hasn't done anything like this before," says Juliana Dweck, of the Princeton University Art Museum, where much of the piece was developed. “To Anna and Monica, everything is an experiment. They're working outside any boxes."
Joining forces with radio hosts, hotel chains and museums isn't so different from cold-calling a university 300 miles away—it comes from the same “anything goes" and “make it work" attitude. Nearly two decades later, Monica Bill Barnes is still hustling, just on a much larger scale.
My dance coach wants my word that I'll keep competing under his school's name for the next year and not audition. I'm 18 years old and already doing lead roles and winning medals. I love his teaching, but shouldn't I be ready to go out and get a job?
—Gil, Las Vegas, NV
How do we make ballet, a traditionally homogeneous art form, relevant to and reflective of an increasingly diverse and globalized era? While established companies are shifting slowly, Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference, though less than 2 years old, has something of a head start. The guiding force of the company, which is based in Germany, is bringing differences together in the same room and, ultimately, on the same stage.
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
Claude Debussy's only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, emphasizes clarity and subtlety over high-flung drama as a deadly love triangle unfolds. Opera Vlaanderen and Royal Ballet of Flanders are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the composer's death with a new production of the landmark opera that is sure to be anything but traditional: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet are choreographing and directing, while boundary-pushing performance artist Marina Abramović collaborates on the design. Antwerp, Feb. 2–13. Ghent, Feb. 23–March 4. operaballet.be/en.
Black History Month offers a time to reflect on the artists who have shaped the dance field as we know it today. But equally important is celebrating the black artists who represent the next generation. These seven up-and-comers are making waves across all kinds of styles and across the country:
When a new director began transforming Atlanta Ballet a couple of years ago, longtime dancer Alessa Rogers decided to finally explore her dream of dancing in Europe. "I always had this wanderlust," she says. She wasn't set on a particular city or company, but thought learning French would be fun. She began her research that September, making note of repertoire and the number of dancers as well as which companies employed foreign, non–European Union dancers. "I saw that Ballet du Rhin was looking for dancers," says Rogers. "They also had a new director coming in, so I thought it could be an opportunity." After sending a video, Rogers traveled during her layoff week to take company class. She was offered a job on the spot.
Uprooting and moving out of the country, far away from your support system, language and customs, is not something to take lightly. While it can push you as an artist and be an exciting opportunity for personal growth, working as a dancer in a foreign country comes with its challenges. Lots of research and an adventurous spirit are required.
Justin Lynch is surprisingly nonchalant about the struggles of being a full-time lawyer and a professional dancer. "All dancers in New York City are experts at juggling multiple endeavors," he says. "What I'm doing is no different from what any other dancer does—it's just that what I'm juggling is different."
While we agree that freelance dancers are pro multitaskers, we don't really buy Lynch's claim that what he does isn't extraordinary. In fact, we're pretty mind-boggled by the career he's built for himself.
At the annual Gala de Danza in Los Cabos, Mexico, the lineup of performers is usually pretty typical gala fare: You can expect celebrity performers like Lil Buck, reality stars like Ballet West's Beckanne Sisk and "So You Think You Can Dance" finalist Tate McRae, plus principals from top companies like New York City Ballet's Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht.
What's absolutely not typical? The venue.
At 5'10" I felt like an ant in the studio with Alonzo King LINES Ballet. The San Francisco-based company is full of statuesque dancers whose passion is infectious. Every story was told not only through their movement, but through the expression on their faces and their connection to one another.
We talked to artistic director Alonzo King about his love of collaborations and why he thinks politicians need to dance more.