In The Studio: Monica Bill Barnes Gets Refreshingly Real About Happy Hour
If you've been following our "In The Studio" series you know that most of our episodes take place in just that—a studio. But at a dress rehearsal for Monica Bill Barnes & Company's latest project Happy Hour, I found myself in what looked like an episode of "The Office" on a day of shooting an after-work party.
Before the company began their rehearsal I sat down with Barnes to discuss the refreshingly relatable comedy of her work:
MBB & Co puttin' some moves down in "Happy Hour." Photo by Grant Halverson
When it comes to figuring out what's funny, do you let the audience's reaction dictate the work and tweak from there, or is it a more rigorous process during the development of a piece?
I'm interested in using comedy as a way to make the work relatable. I find often the audience is laughing at moments of failure, at moments where they've had a similar experience. The comedy and the laughter can actually be a release from the tension of some of the very sincere performing that Anna [Barnes' longtime performing partner, Anna Bass] and I are doing. So often I find the things that we're crafting to be heartbreaking tend to be the big laughs of the show.
Collaboration is a common theme throughout your work. Is that usually what sparks a new project or does it start from a more singular idea?
The process begins with Anna and I in the studio, anywhere from six months to a year, creating tons and tons of choreography. Then my collaborators, Robbie Saenz de Viteri (Creative Producing Director) and Kelly Hanson (Designer) come in the process and begin to shape the material—giving it meaning that makes it more relatable and broader than just the sequence of moves. So many of the things that I think our audiences really relate to are in the performances, the costumes and the environment that they enter into when the show starts. There are so many pieces that create meaning and the choreography is actually living within it, and that's really where the meaning and the weight of the show resides.
The hilariously smart styles of MBB & Co in "Happy Hour" Photo by Grant Halverson
Do you feel like it's a deliberate choice to make socially conscious work with an element of comic relief?
For the past 20 years we've been invested in thinking about the way that women are represented on stage. How that relates to the world and how that relates to how we're talking and thinking about gender. It is very deliberate that we make work that asks people to think differently about what's funny and how we see women on stage, and how we feel the art form of dance is readable and relatable.
Happy Hour invites audiences to "come for the free drink, stay for the hope of a life-changing experience."
What happens during a performance is the product of the painstaking process of realizing an artistic vision. Whether held beforehand, afterward, offsite or online, audience discussions tend not to be so preordained, easily thrown off track without a skilled moderator at the helm.
"I'm someone who dreaded talkbacks and Q&As," admits Bill Bragin, former director of public programming at Lincoln Center. "While I was in New York, a lot of the time it was just audience members trying to show off how smart they were."
These events present a pile of difficult questions: How much do you reveal about a piece before it's shown? How can a conversation designed to hit key points feel casual and spontaneous? How do you cater to the needs of diverse attendees, from novice dancegoers to lifelong fans to scholars and critics? And how do you avoid smothering dance with language, flattening all its complexity?
If you think becoming a trainee or apprentice is the only path to gaining experience in a dance company environment, think again.
The University of Arizona, located in the heart of Tucson, acclimates dancers to the pace and rigor of company life while offering all the academic opportunities of a globally-ranked university. If you're looking to get a head-start on your professional dance career—or to just have a college experience that balances company-level training and repertory with rigorous academics—the University of Arizona's undergraduate and graduate programs have myriad opportunites to offer:
Yes, we realize it's only August. But we can't help but to already be musing about all the incredible dance happenings of 2019.
We're getting ready for our annual Readers' Choice feature, and we want to hear from you about the shows you can't stop thinking about, the dance videos that blew your mind and the artists you discovered this year who everyone should know about.
I dance to encourage others. The longer I dance, the more I see that much of my real work is to speak life-giving words to my fellow artists. This is a multidimensionally grueling profession. I count it a privilege to remind my colleagues of how they are bringing beauty into the world through their craft. I recently noticed significant artistic growth in a fellow dancer, and when I verbalized what I saw, he beamed. The impact of positive feedback is deeper than we realize.