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.
Before too long, dancers and choreographers will get to create on the luxurious 170-acre property in rural Connecticut that is currently home to legendary visual artist Jasper Johns.
If you think that sounds far more glamorous than your average choreographic retreat, you're right. Though there are some seriously generous opportunities out there, this one seems particularly lavish.
Every dancer has learned—probably the hard way—that healthy feet are the foundation of a productive and happy day in the studio. As dancers, our most important asset has to carry the weight (literally) of everything we do. So it's not surprising that most professional dancers have foot care down to an art.
Three dancers shared their foot-care products they can't live without.
Dancers trying their hand at designing is nothing new. But they do tend to stick with studio or performance-wear (think Miami City Ballet's Ella Titus and her line of knit warm-ups or former NYCB dancer Janie Taylor and her ballet costumes). But several dancers at American Ballet Theatre—corps members Jamie Kopit, Erica Lall, Katie Boren, Katie Williams, Lauren Post, Zhong-Jing Fang and soloist Cassandra Trenary—are about to launch a fashion line that's built around designs that can be worn outside of the studio. Titled Company Cooperative, the luxe line of women's wear is handmade in New York City's garment district and designed by the dancers themselves.
Royal Ballet dancers Yasmine Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell recently got together for a different kind of performance: no decadent costumes, sets, stage makeup or lighting. Instead, the principal and first soloist danced choreography by principal character artist Kristen McNally in a stark studio.
The movement is crystal clear, and at the beginning, Naghdi and Stix-Brunell duck and weave around each other with near vacant stares. Do they even know they have a partner? And how should they interact? The situation raises a much larger question: How often do we see a female duet in ballet?
As a student, Milwaukee native John Neumeier appeared in an opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Hamburg Ballet's artistic director and one of the world's leading choreographers, Neumeier now returns to the Midwest to direct and choreograph a new version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, a co-production of the Lyric Opera, LA Opera and Hamburg State Opera. Set to open in Chicago September 23 with the Joffrey Ballet, the ambitious work will see additional engagements in Los Angeles and Hamburg over the next two years.
How did you come to be involved with this collaboration?
It was initiated by the director of the Lyric Opera, Anthony Freud, but I had already been in contact with Ashley Wheater about a separate project with the Joffrey Ballet. The two things came together—and this was really interesting to me because Chicago was important at the start of my career. I was born in Milwaukee, but most of my training was in or near Chicago.
You've previously created version of Orpheus for Hamburg Ballet. What about this particular production caught your interest?
When I got this offer from Anthony, I just went back to the piece and tried to sense what it meant to me now. Gluck's Orphée was part of a push to reform opera and to make a complete work of art involving music, text and dance. What interests me—particularly in this French version we are doing—is that dance plays such an essential role. When Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, it was considered a revolution in musical theater, because dance moved the plot along. In Orphée, we can see that the same idea had been realized several centuries ago: that dance would not be just a divertissement, but a theatrical element, literally "moving" the plot along and expressing in another form the emotion of each situation.
Another idea in Orphée which fascinates me is its directness in projecting profound human emotions—emotions not used as an excuse for vocal virtuosity, but expressed in simple and direct musical terms. In Orphée, we have a mythical subject which is related in an extremely relevant, familiar, human way.
What happens when drones become part of the dance? For Margaret Jenkins Dance Company's latest work, Skies Calling Skies Falling, video artists David and Hi-Jin Hudge used a drone hovering 200 to 400 feet above the ground to film the dancers performing in an industrial granary. The resulting footage will be projected onto the floor and walls of the Taube Atrium Theater, creating a dystopian backdrop to the live performance.
Alex Carrington of MJDC, Photo by RJ Muna
It's been 34 years since Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling touched down on American soil, when The Royal Ballet first performed the great English master's tour de force ballet stateside. On September 22–24, Houston Ballet becomes the first North American company to perform MacMillan's epic chronicle of the murder-suicide of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Crown Prince Rudolf, and his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. Chronicling the last chapter of the Hapsburg Empire, the ballet is known for its true-to-life realism, and for the role of Rudolf, which transformed the way male ballet dancers drive a story. It's considered a dream role for a male dancer. And with seven pas de deux with five different women, a deadly difficult one at that.
Driving Houston Ballet's Mayerling train is principal Connor Walsh, who nearly missed this opportunity to dance the part when Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston Ballet's theatrical home, Wortham Center. Now moved to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts and back in rehearsal, Walsh took a break from his busy schedule to talk about the role of a lifetime.
Have you ever felt like your relationship to dance is something of an addiction? Not to worry, that's completely normal—it's simply the way our brains are wired.
This week, The Washington Post published an intriguing feature that looks at the science of what actually goes on upstairs when we're watching a live performance. The insight comes from the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, which uses tools like brain imaging to study the relationship between art and the brain.
Here are some of the most fascinating takeaways: