Monica Bill Barnes & Company Takes a Swing at Skirball Center

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The first time I saw Monica Bill Barnes & Company was at the old Dixon Place in 2005. There couldn’t have been more than thirty chairs crammed into the living room size space. While I do not remember the title of the show, I remember the fighting spirit of her hapless characters as they attempted to put on the “show”. Like running into an old friend on the street and finding them healthy and happy, it was a joy to see the company this past Saturday night at NYU’s Skirball Center, dancing and mugging to a sold out house seating 850 people. But ultimately, Barnes wants us to know it could fail at anytime, and her choreography seeks to remind us of that razor edge she treads in her life and art. (For Barnes life and art are one and the same.)

The show was a compilation of old and new works, all of it bearing Barnes’s signature stamp of impending failure mixed with immediate hilarity. The evening began with the NYC premiere of Luster. The introductory film, showing Barnes and Anna Bass carrying a set piece downtown through the elements, reminded me of the Laverne and Shirley Show opening. The camaraderie and commitment between the two women set a tone for all of the hijinks to follow and provided a seamless entry for the two dancers and set piece to arrive onstage, all to uproarious applause. The duet featured all of the fun and familiar quick jabs that are so well suited to both women and their small statures, plus confetti. While enjoyable, it could be easy to dismiss as fluff. Luckily, Barnes understands the tragicomic balance and like Goldie Hawn in Overboard, she allowed the confetti to get stuck in their lashes as they continued to blink, metaphorically speaking. What they actually did was run in a circle, dressed ridiculously in sequin dresses and running shoes, while the confetti continued to swirl around them. After a long while, chasing the dream eventually wore them out. Only to be revived again by The New York City Children’s Chorus serenading the pair with “I Hear a Symphony”; a reminder of the heroic gestures, or promise of them, that often get us through the day to day.

Anna Bass and Monica Bill Barnes in Luster. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

After a surreal and admittedly unprepared welcome by This American Life host and MBB & Company champion Ira Glass–consisting of impressive balloon animal tricks and a story of advising a teen girl on her question of how to introduce the gift of fellatio to her boyfriend (to which he concluded there is no wrong way to do so)–the show continued with three works from the repertoire. Apart from a few standout moments, these works tread the familiar self-conscious ground of trying really, really hard, faces contorted, and sort of triumphing.  One of the most memorable moments, came in 2010’s Mostly Fanfare. Bass, left alone on stage to dance a solo and hyper aware of what the opportunity to do so means, is caught off guard and nearly knocked off her feet by a cardboard box is chucked at her from the wings. She barely catches it and proceeds to spend the rest of her alone time catching or dodging large packages rather than point her gorgeous feet in a high kick. There is so much emotion in those unknown “gifts”, presumably thrown at her by life itself, and the humanizing force of her scramble to make sense of them in orderly piles made the audience feel for her too.

Anna Bass in Mostly Fanfare. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

In the post show discussion led by Glass, Barnes makes mention of the fact that her dancers are much more proficient than she allows them to be. Her interest lies far outside of the bull’s eye of perfection that is often the marker for a good dance. As an artistic director, she casts and uses her dancers–including Giulia Carotenuto and Christina Robson–remarkably well within her theatrical aesthetic. There are no set story lines, yet these ladies are definitely characters. But as a choreographer, her vocabulary can seem a bit limited after two hours. I long for them to break out of their show biz dreams more often. As the company begins playing to bigger and bigger houses, I wonder if Barnes’s subject matter and material will get stretched too thin. Will continued success kill her device of potential stardust doom or will it amplify the stakes of “making it” in an epic way? I am happy to report the company is on the path to finding this out, which already counts as a first knock out in my book.

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