Dancers Trending

The Humor and Hustle of Monica Bill Barnes

Adrianne Mathiowetz, Courtesy Three Acts.

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.

Show Comments ()
News
Keone and Mari Madrid. Photo by Carlo Aranda, Courtesy Matt Ross Public Relations

Keone and Mari Madrid are hardly strangers to the spotlight. Together, the powerhouse partners have performed in a Justin Bieber music video and on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," and have choreographed for "So You Think You Can Dance." With around 250,000 subscribers, you could say Keone and Mari are "YouTube famous," but, thanks in part to a successful stint on NBC's "World of Dance" last year, they've become much more than that. Case in point: They're currently co-creating, choreographing and starring in their first full-length production, Beyond Babel. The immersive show will debut in San Diego this month; Keone and Mari hope to eventually take it on tour.

Keep reading... Show less
In Memoriam
Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams in George Balanchine's Agon. Photo courtesy DM Archives

Former New York City Ballet principal dancer and Dance Theatre of Harlem founder Arthur Mitchell passed away today in a Manhattan hospital. He was 84 years old.

Mitchell originated the role of Puck in Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo by Oleaga Photography, Courtesy DM Archives

As a leading dancer with NYCB in the 1950s and '60s, Mitchell became indelibly associated with two roles created on him by George Balanchine: the central pas de deux in Agon (1957) and Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1962). Mitchell's performance of the athletic, entwining Agon pas de deux with Diana Adams—a white woman—caused a major stir during a moment in which America was rife with racial tension.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Whole-body cryotherapy rapidly drops the skin temperature to speed up recovery. Photo courtesy CryoUSA

Dancers are known for going to great lengths to prepare their bodies to perform at their best. But the latest recovery trend that dancers—and star athletes from Kobe Bryant to Floyd Mayweather Jr.—are using is perhaps the most extreme treatment yet.

Whole-body cryotherapy (as opposed to other forms of cryotherapy, such as an ice bath or an ice pack) is said to significantly speed up recovery time by immersing the body in a chamber of very cold air. Once only available in fancy professional sports locker rooms, there are now over 700 whole-body cryotherapy locations across the country.

Keep reading... Show less
News
David Hallberg and Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy ABT

Tucked into a recent article in The New York Times about an upcoming schedule-change at the Metropolitan Opera, was a small bombshell: To accommodate the opera's plans, American Ballet Theatre, with whom it shares the house, will "reduce its Met season to five weeks from the current eight" starting in 2021. The news was dropped casually, practically as an aside.

Maybe it shouldn't come as such a surprise. No regular ABT attendee can have failed to notice that, in recent seasons, there have been performances that were significantly under-sold. This happened even in the case of enduringly popular works like Giselle. Only Misty Copeland or the occasional visitor—Natalia Osipova, say—can fill that cavernous, almost 4,000-seat monolith.

(To be fair, the opera has the same problem; in May of 2017 it was reported to have attained only 67% of potential box office receipts.)

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
Staring down the audience can be a powerful choice when appropriate. Photo by Soho Images, "Nebula" choreographed by Maria Konrad courtesy Next Generation Dance

The most compelling dancers don't just have amazing technique. They also use their focus to draw in the audience and make their performance captivating. Be more confident and engaging onstage by avoiding these mistakes:

Keep reading... Show less
News
Joe Lanteri teaching at Steps in the early 2000s

The iconic New York City dance studio Steps on Broadway has a new leader coming on board: Joe Lanteri. The New York City Dance Alliance founder will be Steps' new co-owner and executive director.

"For me, it's a big full circle," says Lanteri, who used to take class at Steps when he first moved to New York City, and started teaching there in the mid-1980s. The 4:30 p.m. Tuesday/Thursday Advanced Intermediate Jazz slot he held down for many years taught a slew of young talent—including choreographers-to-be like Jessica Lang and Sergio Trujillo. "As a young teacher, Steps was a platform for me to travel the world giving master classes; it became the underlying foundation for what I'm doing now in my life."

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Donald Byrd and Beth Corning share the stage for What's Missing? Photo by Frank Walsh, Courtesy Corning.

When I was approached to write on ageism in dance, I have to admit that after the initial honor of the invite, I suddenly felt old.

I guess I fit the "qualifications" to write this. I'm 63. I've been professionally dancing and choreographing for some 40-plus years, and, in the process, have accumulated a certain amount of perspective on the field. After 20 years running Corning Dances & Company, in 2000 I suddenly looked up and realized I was 10 to 20 years older than my company members. The layers of nuance I was craving were not there; their albeit lithe bodies understandably lacked a base of worldly experience and expression. I couldn't present the kind of movement or conversation I wanted onstage.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in Nicolo Fonte's The Heart(s)pace. Photo by Sharen Bradford, Courtesy ASFB

Small- to medium-sized companies based in cities outside dance meccas—New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles—are often written off as "regional," or somehow lesser than their big city counterparts. But in recent decades, a few have defied such categorization as they've gained traction on the national and international scene.

So how does a company build an international profile without losing connection to its hometown? We asked the directors of Tulsa Ballet, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet and Sarasota Ballet to share their strategies.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Photo Caleb Woods via Unsplash.com

Update: Additional perspectives have been added to this story as more responses have come in.

When news about the lawsuit against New York City Ballet and Chase Finlay emerged last week, plaintiff Alexandra Waterbury, a former School of American Ballet student, told The New York Times:

"Every time I see a little girl in a tutu or with her hair in a bun on her way to ballet class, all I can think is that she should run in the other direction," she said, "because no one will protect her, like no one protected me."

It was quite a statement, and it got us thinking. Of course, it's heartbreaking to imagine the experiences that Waterbury lists in the lawsuit, and it's easy to see why this would be her reaction.

But should aspiring ballet dancers really "run in the other direction"? Were her alleged experiences isolated incidences perpetuated by a tiny percentage of just one company—or are they indicative of major problems in today's ballet culture within and beyond NYCB's walls?

Keep reading... Show less
News
Xenos, Akram Khan's final full-length solo, is an ode to the soldiers of World War I. Photo by Nicol Vizioli, Courtesy Sadler's Wells

We might have gotten a little bit carried away with this year's "Season Preview"—but with the 2018–19 season packing so many buzzy shows, how could we not? Here are over two dozen tours, premieres and revivals that have us drooling.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Mandy Moore at the 2017 Creative Arts Emmy Awards, during which she took home her first Emmy. Photo courtesy Inline/AP

Every year, as soon as the Emmy Award nominations are announced, the first thing I do is scroll down (way, way, way down) to find the nominees for Best Choreography. Last week's announcement was no different, and it was a delightful surprise to see tap queen Chloe Arnold become a first-time nominee for her work on "The Late Late Show With James Corden." Alongside Arnold, Mandy Moore, Travis Wall, Al Blackstone and Christopher Scott received nominations for their dances on awards heavy-hitter "So You Think You Can Dance." (Shout-out to Blackstone for his first Emmy nod!)

I do, however, have a bone to pick with the Emmys. Namely, that the routines for which these choreographers were nominated do not appear on the nominations section of the site. Worse, not even the episodes in which the Emmy-nominated dances appear are listed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Voices
Photo via Andrew Seaman/Unsplash

Dear Dance Magazine,

Thank you for demonstrating a commitment to transparency and evolution during this divisive time in our country. Over the past few years I have seen the Dance Magazine content reflect increased awareness about the value of inclusion and diversity in U.S. culture. It also has highlighted the need for the dance industry culture to self-examine and pursue constant revisions (just as dancers themselves do).

Keep reading... Show less
News
Ramasar and Catazaro, photos via Instagram

New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)

The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:

"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."

Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Natasha Sheehan says competing gave her a crack at rep beyond her rank. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB

As a student, Katherine Barkman competed in several prestigious ballet competitions, and even won first place at the Youth America Grand Prix in Philadelphia. But at age 21, already a guest principal dancer with Ballet Manila, she decided to return to the competition stage as a professional. She found herself humbled by an experience at the 2017 Moscow International Ballet Competition.

"I was pretty intimidated, thinking, This is the big leagues, this is the Bolshoi Theatre," says Barkman, who was eliminated after the first round. "You are not just judged on how good you are for your age."

Competitions have long had a place in the training of young dancers, allowing them more opportunities to perform and learn under pressure. But even after you've secured a company contract, there are myriad benefits to putting yourself in front of judges.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Being an introvert doesn't mean you can't shine in the spotlight. Photo by Saksham Gangwar/Unsplash

Most people assume that for dancers to be successful, they have to be extroverts who feed off of constant attention. They figure that introverts don't enjoy being in the spotlight.

But don't let anyone tell you that just because you're introverted, you can't have a career in dance.

According to the Myers & Briggs Foundation, the only real difference between introverts and extroverts is where they get their energy. Extroverts are energized by social interaction and drained by time spent alone, while introverts experience the opposite.

Keep reading... Show less
Editors’ List: The Goods

Longer ballet skirts are having a major moment. We've seen them popping up in the Instagram studio clips of dance fashionistas around the world—from American Ballet Theatre's Isabella Boylston to The Royal Ballet's Beatriz Stix-Brunell to Berlin State Ballet's Iana Salenko. And with cooler weather on the way, we have a feeling we'll be seeing even more calf-length skirts.

Beyond being trendy, long ballet skirts give any studio ensemble a sophisticated prima ballerina vibe (hi, Natalia Makarova). Try out one of these long skirt options.

Keep reading... Show less
What Wendy's Watching
Bill T. Jones' Ambros: The Emigrant. PC Paul B. Goode

Bill T. Jones is one of the few choreographers who can weave together social consciousness with choreographic inventiveness. This is visible in all three parts of his Analogy Trilogy, a 6½-hour marathon that comes to NYU Skirball Center on Sept. 22 and 23.

In this Trilogy, Jones goes beyond his own cultural identity. The first part, Dora: Tramontane, centers on Dora Amelan, a Holocaust survivor who tried to help children during World War II. Her ordeal is told through interviews spoken by the dancers and envisioned in shifting scenes. The second part, Lance: Pretty aka the Escape Artist, is about Jones' nephew, and his involvement in the underground world of drugs and sex in New York in the 80s. This section contains several gorgeously choreographed duets. The third part, Ambros: The Emigrant, is not about a real person but about the nature of trauma and memory.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

You Might Also Like

477,305 likes

Sponsored

Viral Videos

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Giveaways