Choreographer Monica Bill Barnes likes to keep her dances small and manageable. You won’t find her staging parade-ground numbers for massed gymnasts at the Olympics, or choreographing a grand defile to showcase the ranks of a classical ballet company.
Mostly there’s just Monica and her sidekick, Anna Bass, who travel with a suitcase full of costumes and a repertoire of wry, comic skits, toting cleaning supplies and dragging along their very own, portable proscenium. Now there’s Ira, too.
Ira is Ira Glass, the beloved host of “This American Life” on public radio. He’s also the straight-man in a show Barnes has choreographed called “Three Acts, Two Dancers and One Radio Host,” which arrives at the McCarter Theater on Saturday, November 21.
This program, which made its debut two years ago at Carnegie Hall, aims to reconcile disciplines that would seem to have no common ground — dance and radio. Yet when Glass first laid eyes on Barnes’ work in 2011 he fell in love with it. Eager to collaborate with this artist, whom he regarded as a kindred spirit, he was determined to brush aside the inconveniences. Though Barnes says she had reservations (dance being a visual art and all that), Glass overcame them; with the result that she and Anna joined him for a live-cinema event, “This American Life — Live!” in 2012.
“Three Acts, Two Dancers and One Radio Host” grew out of that experiment. It interweaves Glass’s contemplative yet alluring way of telling stories with Barnes’ zany dance routines, including the ever-popular excerpt from “Another Parade” in which a pair of hopeless frumps get jiggy to a recording of James Brown’s “Sex Machine.” Glass also shakes a leg, abandoning his distance as commentator to join the women in a soft-shoe number, twirling a baton, and even performing hat tricks.
In Act One the performers reflect upon the difficulties that haunt a performing artist’s career. Act Two examines the joys and pitfalls of falling in love; while Act Three proposes that, despite life’s many frustrations, it doesn’t last nearly long enough. Addressing those big-ticket items — love, death, and the performer’s desperate need for attention — the show blends pathos with irreverent wit.
In fact, Barnes says, she has had a perverse sense of the tragedy awaiting every dancer since she was a child, and her parents took her to see “A Chorus Line.” (What a mistake.) “I was just devastated,” Barnes recalls. “That musical deals so brilliantly with what performers do when they can’t perform — and that has been their dream.” Now she finds it odd that her 9-year-old self would take this issue to heart, but Barnes claims she always had a mysterious affinity for the theater that gradually blossomed into a vocation.
The choreographer, 42, grew up in Berkeley, California, where her father served as a minister in the United Church of Christ, and her mother was a professor of women’s studies. Though both her parents enjoyed athletics, her family was also studious, and, when she was young, Barnes didn’t know anyone who danced professionally. “It took me a while to realize that was an option,” she says. Nonetheless, her parents enrolled her in dance classes at a local school, where she learned to tap and twirl. Best of all, she loved the costumes she wore at Miss Katie’s annual recital. “Fringe and feathers, and just a ridiculous amount of cheap, shiny things that you can glue on a leotard,” Barnes says describing these outfits. “I thought they were wonderful.” This glitz contrasted with the conservative attire she was expected to wear at church on Sundays.
“One of my favorite things that my mom would do, whenever we would go shopping for school clothes, is she’d say, ‘Now would you be comfortable if Deacon Morse saw you wearing that?’” Barnes recalls. “I feel like somehow every fashion decision I’ve ever made has been determined by how the board of deacons would feel about it.”
Barnes received her first exposure to modern dance in high school and continued to dance at the University of California San Diego. There she studied philosophy and theater with the intention of eventually practicing law. Something threatened to break inside her, though, when Barnes realized that attending law school would mean quitting dance. “It was the thing I loved doing the most,” she says. “When I started to figure out what I should do after graduation, I just couldn’t imagine not doing that. That’s when I thought, ‘Well, I guess I need to move to New York and do it, then.’ It dawned on me, honestly, a little bit slowly.”
Once in New York, however, Barnes wasted no time. She won a fellowship to study dance at New York University and began taking classes at the Ailey School. Now she was in the center of things, immersed in the bustling life of the world’s dance capital and exposed to a continuous flow of dance events, with numerous opportunities to freelance as a performer. During her two years as a graduate student at NYU, major artists created works there, but Barnes discovered her own compulsion to create. Citing choreographers Doug Varone and Ann Carlson as inspirations, Barnes says, “It felt clear to me that these two people are brilliant, and I love this process, but even loving it as much as I do I still want to make my own work.” She would “rather struggle and fail” than join another choreographer’s company.
No one else, she says, was making the kinds of dances she wanted to perform. “Not demonstrating virtuosity but putting my training and skill behind the ability to look like I fell down or I was caught off-guard,” she says. “Pretty early on, I realized I’m interested in making people laugh. I feel like there’s more tragedy that can be found when you get someone to laugh than when you make them watch you go through a hard time.”
Barnes says she had her “aha!” moment — or maybe it was a “ha ha” moment — shortly after graduating from NYU, when she noticed audiences snickering at certain points during her solos. She began refining those points and playing the crowd, discovering that “humor is a great way to listen” to an audience. Barnes developed a manic style of dancing filled with tight, small gestures among which larger movements would erupt. Her dances would stop and start, beguiling viewers with unexpected twists. Barnes says she tried to perform as often as possible, in every conceivable type of environment. She never turned down a gig. “I feel like I made it by saying ‘yes’ to every opportunity,” she says.
She formed her own group, Monica Bill Barnes & Company, in 1997, the same year she married her college sweetheart, actor David Wilson Barnes (who took her name). Two years later, the Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery began presenting her work, starting with an evening-length dance called “When We Were Pretty,” and Barnes began offering annual New York seasons.
For several years she resisted incorporation because of the administrative hassle, working under the umbrella of The Field, a provider of strategic services to art creators. But in 2007 she got her 501(c)3 status and acquired a board of directors. She choreographed her breakthrough piece, “Another Parade,” in 2009, including the tongue-in-cheek “Sex Machine” number. Barnes likes this number as much as everyone else. “We’re really strong characters,” she says, describing it. “We’re unafraid to be awkward. It’s incredibly musical, and it’s a mix of dance genres — everything from boxing to tap to big jumps. It feels like a representation of what I’m interested in doing.”
Although she doesn’t work with large groups of dancers, Barnes’ artistic team includes collaborators who have been with her since graduate school: Broadway lighting designer Jane Cox, set and costume designer Kelly Hanson, and producer Robert Saenz de Viteri.
Dancer Anna Bass joined Barnes 12 years ago, and the two women have forged an artistic bond. “There’s a certain chemistry that I have with her, and only with her, that inspires me to create situations and movements that I feel are unique,” Barnes says. “So after all these years, she has much to do with my impulse to make something.” And then, there’s Ira. “He gets a performance fee for every show, so he’s one of our dancers,” Barnes quips.
Audiences aren’t the only ones enjoying themselves. “I feel if we’re not having a good time, then I haven’t done a good job of creating the right environment,” she says. “It’s an incredible amount of work to do what we do, but we really need to feel supported, and truthfully just have fun.”
Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Saturday, November 21, 8 p.m. $40 to $70. 609-258-2787 or mccarter.org