Modern dance is often all about being graceful and immaculate and precise. The Monica Bill Barnes dance company takes a step in the other direction.
The dancers move awkwardly and aggressively, expressing sexuality by licking their shoulders or flashing their stomachs to the audience. The company is now best known for dancing alongside Ira Glass from "This American Life."
Monica Bill Barnes, the artistic director and choreographer, and associate artistic director Anna Bass joined us in the studio.
Anna, given that you both come from traditional backgrounds, how did you decide upon your lighthearted and unconventional style?
I think we go against what people expect, and I think some of the biggest compliments I've gotten from audience members who are not dancers are things like, "Oh my gosh, I do that kind of dancing in my bedroom," or, "Yeah, I totally felt like that one time."
Monica, you write in your mission statement for the company that, "Our mission is to celebrate individuality, humor, and the innate theatricality of everyday life, and to uncover and delight in the underdog in all of us." First of all, humor isn't something that I imagine is foremost in a lot of dance troupes' mission statements, so why is it important to you?
It's important for a couple reasons. I think it really mirrors the way that I experience life; to be a working artist in America right now you really need a good sense of humor about yourself and the work.
I also feel that humor is a way that I, from the stage, can hear that the audience is comprehending and following along — we can't laugh at something that we don't understand. And so when we hear the audience laugh, at minimum I know that they're paying attention.
Anna, does that parallel the idea that you take delight in the underdog in all of us?
We really love being the underdog. We also really love being the everyman, and all of that is part of our attempt for people to relate to us, and I feel that's how we start every show, like, "OK, here we all are, we hope you guys like it, but if you don't, it's OK." We're fighters, so we like to fight for it. [laughs]
It's funny that you mention fighting, because you guys have a piece that you dance to that's James Brown's "Get On Up." When you guys are dancing to this, you kind of punch the air like you're boxers, and you bounce on the balls of your feet. Who wants to talk about what's going on here?
Monica: [laughs] This all has to do with the idea that Anna's mentioning about the underdog. There's a way in which people can only laugh at you if they feel confident enough in your performance, that they won't laugh at somebody that they are worried about or are pitying. So it's like we're taking on the entire audience, like, "Yeah, there's a thousand of you and there's two of us here. We got this."
Anna: We're confident underdogs. [laughs]
Anna, I want to ask you this. Dance is often thought of as very graceful or very sexy, especially when it's danced by women, but you two subvert those notions in your style of dance. It's not ungraceful, but there's something you're trying to say about sexuality?
Yeah, there's something about the sexy dancer that's such a known entity, and I feel like it's been done and is still being done really well by other people. For me, there's no new territory in that, so we're interested in other things.
In particular, I feel like that James Brown piece came out after we had been working for a long time, and I felt like there was this element of people saying, "It's so interesting how you never deal with sexuality," and I remember thinking, "What, you want some sexuality? Like a stomach? You want us to lick our shoulders? What are you looking for?"
There's a way of just sort of putting it on the line but giving it a new context, and I think that being women and being really interested in being powerful stage presences, a lot of the physical impulses we have are about having a power to our movement.
We should say that we're dressed in these really ill-fitting wool skirts, they don't smell good — there's nothing attractive about them. And we literally are looking at one person in the audience, and the monologue moment there is that we say, "Do you want to see my stomach? You really want to see my stomach? All right, I'm going to show you, only you, my stomach." Well, that's what I say. [laughs]
When you two first met, did you think that you had distinctly separate styles of dancing? Now that you've worked together for so long, have those styles of dancing emerged into a new, coherent thing?
Anna: Hmm, this is a good question. We met in a very typical 'New York dance community' way of each seeing the other perform, and from the very beginning I thought, "Oh my gosh, her movement suits me so well. We're almost the exact same build and height, and we have very, very similar impulses and we move incredibly similarly." And that's always been true.
Monica: To echo that, I've never felt kinship to anybody else the way I do when I dance with Anna, and that was apparent from the very beginning. What I feel so happy about, and what makes our work such a pleasure, is that I feel like it allows me to express something that I could only do with Anna.
Monica and Anna will be performing with "This American Life" host Ira Glass at the Bovard Auditorium on Jan. 31.