Monica Bill Barnes is one of the funniest choreographers working today. And though the style of physical humor she's crafted with her frequent collaborator Anna Bass could elicit laughs even in dead silence, the pair's antics are often supplemented with—or juxtaposed against—music choices that feel both unexpected and yet somehow perfectly fitting.
It turns out that music plays a significant role in Barnes' creative process, too: Even songs that don't end up in her shows help her develop material and figure out the tone of a work. Barnes talked to us about her relationship with music, and made us a playlist of songs that "feel supportive in nature," she says. "They're go-to hits that help me understand something about the material; good fallbacks when I'm not sure where a particular show is heading."
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.
On the cusp of a new performance season, our calendars are chock full with shows we're dying to see. But it can be hard to know where to start with a season filled to bursting with promising premieres, tours and revivals. We've picked 12 shows that should definitely be on your radar.
It's time! You submitted your nominations for the most memorable dance you saw this year. We narrowed down our favorites, and now it's up to you to decide what will make it into our December issue.
Voting will be open until September 25th. Only one submission per person will be counted.
For Dance Magazine's 90th anniversary issue, we wanted to celebrate the movers, shakers and changemakers who are having the biggest impact on our field right now. There were so many to choose from! But with the help of dozens of writers, artists and administrators working in dance, the Dance Magazine staff whittled the list down to those we felt are making the most difference right now.
Click through the links below to find out why they made our list.
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When it feels like everything's already been done, Monica Bill Barnes still pushes boundaries. Her hit collaboration with "This American Life" host Ira Glass mixed dance with radio-style storytelling, and her Happy Hour series embraced the idea of an office-party-meets-karaoke-meets-dance experience. And although plenty of choreographers are setting site-specific work in museums these days, Barnes takes it a few steps further—and leads her audience through an aerobic workout in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
From left: Bass, Glass and Barnes. Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz, Courtesy Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host.
Monica Bill Barnes, Anna Bass and Ira Glass. While one of these is not like the other, the uncanny combination has made the touring show Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host a runaway success. It's the subject of the latest episode of Dance Magazine's web series "Behind the Curtain," which follows choreographer and performer Barnes to Durham, North Carolina, where she, Bass and Glass were mounting their show. Be a fly on the wall as she tests out set pieces in tech rehearsal, warms up backstage and mingles at a post-show reception (fireworks included).
Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host is a feast for the eyes—full of sequins and balloons—and the episode gives viewers a peek at many of its dance numbers. Even more interesting, though, is seeing Glass, host of "This American Life," navigate and understand Barnes' creative process, as well as what it takes to be a dancer. During one moment at the theater, he remarks on how many hours a day Barnes and Bass spend dancing between rehearsals and shows. How do they do it? "That's because you're not human," he says.
The show starts with Glass suggesting talking as a way to open. (Of course, the show has already begun.) Barnes disagrees, saying that movement would be a stronger choice. But, contests Glass, talking can plant an idea in the audience's heads to help set up the show. Not missing a beat, Barnes fires back: "I think the idea is movement."
Catch her in action here.
Barnes (right) with Ira Glass and Anna Bass in "Three Acts." Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz, Courtesy "Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host."
When choreographer Monica Bill Barnes and longtime artistic partner Anna Bass debuted Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host at Carnegie Hall in 2013, they never dreamed it would take them on a two-year cross-country tour. In the show, heartfelt and humorous radio host Ira Glass tells stories from his beloved program “This American Life,” colored by Barnes’ punchy, slapstick movement. Extended through December 2015, it will continue to enchant American audiences—from Alaska to Texas—with its entertaining and moving combination of two forms that Glass has claimed “have no business being together—dance and radio.” See 3acts2dancers1radiohost.com for tour stops.
How has Glass affected your view about dance?
At the heart of the show is the question I have been working on for years: how to include someone who doesn’t have a visceral understanding of what we do as dancers. I want my work, for better or worse, to be communicative. I try to create that through non-dance costumes and familiar music. One of the most profound realizations Ira has given me is how lovely it is to just tell the audience something. You can feel them relax when Ira says, “Hi, the three of us decided to make a show.” It just acknowledges that we are all people here.
Why do you think it’s been so successful?
We have a similar sense of how we want to handle the audience—not holding their hand too tightly, with an element of surprise. What was exciting was not the invention of new material, but understanding how dance and radio could be framed differently by each other. We were interested in how meaning develops from context. When I proposed the show to Ira, it had everything to do with me wanting to have a conversation with him about creative work. Sometimes something becomes successful because of business savvy, but this is just about the three of us being curious.
Has the tour been grueling?
It has been a total pleasure. We do a ton of one-offs: We hop on a plane, load in, do the show, go out for dinner and then get back on a plane. For my personality, it suits me perfectly. It allows me to live in a show.
What is the most surprising audience experience you have had on tour?
The biggest surprise came when we showed it the first time. You don’t have a sense of what is meaningful, funny or what will fall on its face until you have people who have paid for a ticket watching. Over the last year, I’ve been learning from each performance and then going back and thinking more as a director than a choreographer. Because of that, the choreography itself hasn’t changed much, but the shape of the work has really shifted. I love that Ira and Anna were both game to keep reevaluating the show.
What was reshaped?
The show has a wide emotional range, and there were times in the early versions when the shifts in mood were sharper. Once during a quick change, I accidentally slipped into the wrong costume. My performer-self intuited a more organic order. As the director, I eventually landed there.
To kick off 2015, we asked 15 leading choreographers working in the U.S. to choose what they see as the most influential work of the past 15 years. Their selections highlight a slice of the creativity witnessed in the past decade and a half—and offer insight into what drives their own artistic choices.
Julie Tolentino in Raised by Wolves. Photo by Yongho Kim, Courtesy Tolentino.
Julie Tolentino’s Raised by Wolves, 2013
In a virtuosic tour-de-force that included choreography, improvisation and vocal incantations, Tolentino created an intimacy so potent that it was both frightening and exhilarating. This installation included a solo performed 50 times over a few weeks for an audience of no more than five in the Commonwealth & Council gallery in Los Angeles. It influenced me not just on how to make dances, but how to be an artist. It was a reminder of why I do what I do: to takes risks, to speak directly about the most complex issues of the human condition, and to try to do so in a wholly original way.
Bel in Cédric Andrieux, Photo by Marco Caselli Nirmal, Courtesy Bel.
Jérôme Bel’s Cédric Andrieux, 2009
The end had me in tears as Cédric sang along with The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” I felt so seen and understood as a dancer throughout the piece. I wanted to continually stand up and say, “See, this is what it is like!” And at the end, when Cédric looked at all of us, with no dancer gaze, just as a human being, I thought, This is exactly why I make dances: So I can get to this moment.
Ordinary Witnesses, Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy NYLA.
Rachid Ouramdane’s Ordinary Witnesses, 2009
This rare, powerful work attempts to bear witness to events of human suffering in history. But it also achieves an aesthetic coup by using understated and intelligent staging in a documentary form of dance theater. I feel Rachid is posing an existential question: Can dance and choreography even have the criteria to address these issues? This work tilts the conversation of choreographic content, quite radically, into new directions.
Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 2011’s Park Avenue Armory Events, Photo by Stephanie Berger, Courtesy Park Avenue Armory.
Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s farewell performance, 2011
The final shows of the Cunningham company at the Park Avenue Armory, which included his 2009 Nearly Ninety, were a profound reminder that artists can keep forever growing through all points of their creative journey, regardless of age. The scope/size of the space and the amount of dance vocabulary being shared from the several stages set up—and the magnitude of importance of Merce’s work—was beyond anything I have witnessed.
Urban Bush Women in Walking with Pearl...Southern Diaries, Photo by Ayano Hisa, Courtesy UBW.
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Walking with Pearl suite (Africa Diaries, 2004; Southern Diaries, 2005)
In this piece, Jawole Zollar mined histories of dance, a people and a place. Using collective and personal narratives with dancing that’s both fierce and intimate, she’s influenced generations of artists. She’s made a refuge in the form of a company, a network and an institute for choreographers of color, and has raised her voice for all women in the field.
Cedar Lake in Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue. Photo by Paula Lobo, Courtesy Cedar Lake.
Crystal Pite’s Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue, 2008
This work very literally explores what the title expresses. Yet it is so fully realized that the choreography transcends its own specificity into a totally riveting experience of sheer physical magnificence. She reveals the fragility in human emotion and beauty without an ounce of irony.
Alvin Ailey performs Grace. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy AAADT.
Ronald K. Brown’s Grace, 1999
This piece makes me want to shout, holler and cry…and give witness. Witness to a culture where dance works as an exalter of pain, frustration and loneliness. The themes still resonate, 15 years later, as a powerful celebration of the lives deeply embedded into club culture that have passed on. I’ve always viewed it as a dedication to those who’ve sought dance and club culture as the ultimate healer.
Mark Haim’s This Land Is Your Land. Photo by Tim Summers, Courtesy Haim.
Monica Bill Barnes
Mark Haim’s This Land Is Your Land, 2010
This was one of the most powerful, moving works I have ever seen. Mark is a riveting performer who blends a down-to-earth real-person quality with perfectly executed technical movement choices, and he was able to transfer these qualities to a large group of both dancers and non-dancers. It was profoundly beautiful and joyful and heartbreaking. I feel like this is the best example of the belief that some ideas and emotions can only be expressed through movement.
Liam Mower as Billy. Photo by David Scheinmann, Courtesy Billy Elliot.
Peter Darling’s Billy Elliot, 2005
I was so intrigued by the beautiful imagery that Peter Darling brought to the “Grandma’s Song,” a vocal solo, through a slow-moving wave of choreography that passed from one side of the stage to the other. It was a perfect example of how stylized ensemble choreography can function as an impressionistic surround, illuminating the subtext and complexity of a narrative solo.
You Got Served. Photo © Columbia Pictures’ Screen Gems.
Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo
You Got Served, 2004
This was the first time that the crew-based mentality style of hip hop was seen on the big screen. Dave Scott’s work is incredible, and really started a whole dance crew craze.
Atlanta Ballet in 1st Flash. Photo by Charlie McCullers, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet.
Jorma Elo’s 1st Flash, 2003
I remember being in awe of this piece. I told everyone I knew that Jorma had reignited the conversation between classical and contemporary dance, in a new way that invited gesture and idiosyncrasy back to the table. After its premiere, Jorma was called to choreograph for major classical and contemporary companies everywhere. He has since clearly influenced the dance world and, to my eyes, 1st Flash was the beginning of it.
Non Griffiths in Dover Beach. Photo by Paula Court, Courtesy The Kitchen.
Sarah Michelson’s Dover Beach, 2009
Through an accumulation of highly original and powerfully athletic dances, exemplified well by Dover Beach, Sarah Michelson re-legitimized the type of technical/formalist dance language as a vehicle for avant-garde expression that had formerly become anathema to downtown dancemakers in general. Her dances oppose the rejection of all artifice (associated with the Judson Church aesthetic) with a theatricalism that nonetheless retains high-art bona fides poised on the border between dance and gallery-worthy visual art.
Mark Morris Dance Group in V. Photo by Robbie Jack, Courtesy MMDG.
Mark Morris’ V, 2001
The intelligence, craft, structure, musicality, mathematical patterns, the unavoidable humanity—this piece is timeless. It inspired me by demonstrating that a choreographer is responsible for creating everything that happens on the stage. Nothing is haphazard about its construction, indicating a strong singular voice from Mr. Morris that is brought to life through his beautiful dancers.
Akram Khan’s ma. Photo Courtesy Akram Khan Company.
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
Akram Khan’s ma, 2004
I was humbled by ma. It combined philosophy, poetry, intricacy and humor. I felt that everything had been said. Nothing more could be added choreographically.
Paxton in The Beast. Photo by Julieta Cervantes, Courtesy BAC.
Steve Paxton’s The Beast, 2010
Through this profoundly gripping study of small spinal manipulations and shifts of energy, Paxton somehow suspends time. The dark, disorienting palette of action confirms the belief that imagination is the only limit to innovation, and that the prerequisite of youth in dance is an illusion: Paxton, still an extraordinary innovator at age 75, accomplishes what younger dancers can’t begin to do.