New York-based Monica Bill Barnes & Company will perform in the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts Dance Studio at Emory University February 28 through March 2. “Things you can’t do on the radio,” a new work in progress, will showcase choreographer, dancer and director Monica Bill Barnes with company member Anna Bass in a full-evening duet that celebrates 10 years of performing collaborations.
The piece is autobiographical, Barnes says, with themes of endurance and triumph. “In a field where many people hang up their hats at [age] 24 or 25,” she says, “we honor a life where we continue to prioritize our work as dancers very highly and how that has really shaped our lives.”
The company’s website describes its mission as to “celebrate individuality, humor and the innate theatricality of everyday life.” The small contemporary dance ensemble has weathered economic hardships while continuing to produce distinctive art. “Barnes has made zippy and understated magic,” wrote New Yorker critic Apollinaire Scherr, while Jennifer Brewer of The Portland Press Herald in Maine applauded the company’s 2010 debut there as “refreshing, accessible and technically superb, with an intellectual elegance that never faltered.”
Atlanta audiences can expect a show that includes both “tricks” and solid dance technique. If performances elsewhere are any indication, it will include the styles of vaudeville, the circus and slapstick comedy. Those elements are contrasted with masterfully executed turns and dynamic aerial feats.
Emory dance faculty member Gregory Catellier, part of the committee that chooses performers for the university’s Flora Glenn Candler Concert Series, says Barnes brings a unique voice to dance in the way she develops audience and dancer rapport. “Monica’s work speaks to all people,” Catellier says. “There’s something so equally entertaining and thought-provoking in the work.”
Barnes believes her choreography requires the development of a relationship with the audience, kind of like a chemistry experiment. “I’m going out of my way to make the dance seem familiar so the audience doesn’t feel desperate for meaning,” she explains. “My hope is that the choreographic structure and movement vocabulary really stands alone, [and] that nothing is over their heads, although we’re not aiming to be unsophisticated or without layers. Let’s say it’s made with the audience in mind; it’s essentially inviting.”
Familiar music, by artists ranging from Judy Garland to John Fogerty to the Rat Pack, is a staple of Barnes’ work. She often costumes her performers in street clothes, and their acting is expressive and contains real-life situations and relationships.
In a recent New York performance, Barnes opened with a previous work, “Luster,” that included a short film where the women are seen carrying a small-scale proscenium arch with a quintessential red curtain from storage through the streets of the city; they then appear live on the stage with it. For the new Atlanta piece, Barnes is making a film along similar lines with an “incredibly game” group of volunteer students. “In dance, once the movement makes it into a piece, you tour it over and over,” she says. “It’s kind of wonderful to have this thing that you do once and it’s there forever.”
Catellier predicts that “Things you can’t do on the radio” will be well received in Atlanta. “I think the audience will be completely enthralled,” he says. “The choreography is very smart, but the two of them onstage is really something special.”
Bass says the piece is filled with “real-people moments mixed in with performer and dancer moments,” making it accessible to all audiences.
She says that she and Barnes met through a dance connection and found they had similar movement styles. “And we’re both hams,” Bass laughs. “We’re both trying to share and steal the spotlight from each other; we support each other while upstaging each other.”