- Anna Bass & Deborah Lohse in “Another Parade”
Well, something makes them do it: the dancers who walk—not just once, but repeatedly—out upon a empty, darkened stage, in front of hundreds of strangers who’ve paid money to see what they can do, before the first gestures provide the confirmation: Yes, they are the evening’s entertainment.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, June 15-16, New York choreographerMonica Bill Barnesshares a showcase with Kate Weare at the American Dance Festival. Barnes’s company performs excerpts fromAnother Parade, a work that investigates, with wit and poignancy, what makes performers perform, and what exactly our relationship with them is when we’re their audience.
I spoke by phone with Barnes in New York on Friday, June 11.
INDY: In this work, you’re exploring how absolutely strange it is to do the work a dancer and a choreographer does in public.
BARNES: A large part of my interest in choreographing is in creating situations to put myself and the dancers I’m working with in, in front of people; I’m creating scenarios to be seen.
After doing this for 15 years, I started thinking, “Well, what is it? Why am I doing this, and what’s the relationship we’re building with an audience?”
It’s such a gift to have people come fill a room and pay attention to something that you’ve created—and something you’re also offering in this one moment in time. Figuratively and literally, we take the audience’s presence in as we’re dancing. There are moments where we stop and look out, as if we were in conversation. And the audience is part of conversation that’s imagined or created on my part.
It’s an interesting experience for us to embrace the audience as a really active part of the entire experience.
It reminds me of what a director once told me was the secret of one-person shows: The best ones are actually a conversation, not a monologue—just one in which one person’s talking and the others are silent participants.
- Deborah Lohse & Anna Bass in “Another Parade”
After that, I started checking out audiences at those shows, and sure enough: People would be nodding at certain points, or shaking their head—clearly participating, conversationally, dialogically, in a number of performances.
Then there are the performers I work with—they’re extraordinary. We’re a small group, but they just fill the space.
In a way I’ve always felt we’re really a company of soloists. Everyone is so unique to themselves; you don’t mix up who’s who. If I were to lose some of the performers, I don’t know I would remake the piece; it comes from the specificity that the individuals bring to it.
What was lovely about making Another Parade was being able to deal with all of that, head on, because it’s in every performance experience that we have. As is that moment where you feel like you’re losing the audience. I’m always amazed at how emotionally I can respond to that; it feels like, “You’re not paying attention here!!” and I’m suddenly, deeply upset.
But then we’re friends again: How quickly that can turn, and how loaded that relationship is.
And yet, by and large, it’s just a group of strangers who decided to spend the night this way. It’s an interesting relationship, one I’m constantly fascinated by.
Performance is a situation where the personal stakes are about as high as they get. You’re out there. And dance, particularly, can be so disclosive; it exposes you in a way I don’t think most other genres do.
People have written of your interest in probing awkwardness and failure. Awkwardness comes when someone shows up and attempts something—sometimes something great, other times just mere competence. Hope is involved with it—and sometimes, the inadvertent arrival of the truth.
The pretense of a performance is already a bit of an awkward situation. Everyone sort of hopes it’s going to go well, but the potential of it not is always present, and every so often, something does go wrong. I think part of what I love about going to see work is that you never know what’s going to happen.
- Celia Rowlson-Hall in Monica Bill Barnes’ “Another Parade”
Early in my training I went to the Alvin Ailey school. As a teenager I loved the company, and I still do admire them. When I got to the school, they were just such stunning dancers, with technique that just blew you away. I realized I was just so in awe of them.
But when I started making work I thought, “I don’t really want audiences to be in awe. I want them to be endeared to us instead.”
I wanted audiences to feel they could identify with us, that they they’re in the same shoes that we’re in, that we’re more similar than dissimilar. And I found breaking out all of my most fabulous dance moves doesn’t create that kinship.
But there were certain elements. Some of them are in design. The costumes we wear, for example: They’re slightly ill fitting, like we sort of wanted to get dressed up, but we didn’t quite gauge the party. You know, where you go, but you think, “Shoot, I’m a little overdressed—or a touch under.”
There are certain things like that that I think all of us feel in our lives. Some more than others, perhaps: like tripping, or having sort of a physical miscommunication.
I found there were certain moves that could bring an audience into the experience in a more familiar way. I felt the kind of communication we can have when the audience isn’t “wowed” by us as technical dancers—but rather that they’re on the same page with us—was artistically where I was really interested in exploring. So the work does have a lot of familiar gesturing. And you do feel like things aren’t going according to plan.
You’re emphasizing the humaneness, the humanity of the folks on stage. You’re saying, “We’re not superheroes, there are no wires or special effects; this thing isn’t rigged and things can go wrong. In some ways, the aesthetic really reminds me of [playwright/performer] Lisa Kron.
I love her work!
Me, too. In some of her shows, she sets up situations where the performance at least seems to go off the rails. And choreographer Claire Parker’s another one. When I interviewed her about her creative process, she said, up front: “I’m a mistake generator.” The object of the game, for her, is to come up with the most interesting mistake you are capable of making, and staging that until you can find a more interesting set of mistakes to make.
I know Claire, and I really love her work as well. I really love her humor, which is something sometimes written about my work as well.
- Monica Bill Barnes & Company in “Another Parade”
There’s something so wonderful that we see failure and we find it funny. Claire makes such wonderfully humorous work, that’s so funny in one moment, and in the next moment is so profound or tragic.
With the element of surprise, or not being predictable, I hope the audience is continuously compelled by the situation and the performers, and that they’re seeing something that’s uniquely happening tonight.
When I’m deeply moved by a performance, it’s sometimes been a performance when something clearly has gone wrong, and you’re seeing these skilled performers navigate a situation to the best of their ability. You feel like there’s a badge of honor in witnessing something unique.
A lot of dance—that I love and admire—is something that you can just sit back and be in awe of the skill and the artistry on stage.
I think I’m trying to engage the audience in a different way.
I’m asking, “Do you see this? Do you see what we’re going through? Can you identify? And how does that affect the way we’re experiencing our 35 minutes together?”
This year, ADF’s season theme is a question: “What is dance theater?” It raises another question: Do you consider your work dance theater?
I don’t shy away from it. If someone else sees the work and they say, “That really feels like dance theater to me,” I don’t feel the need to correct them… (laughs)
(laughs) No, in those circumstances I don’t suppose you’d want to say, “Fooled you…”
Hey, they paid their money for a ticket! It’s their right to make meaning! (laughs)
But I have to say, in full disclosure, that my husband’s an actor, and an incredibly brilliant one. I’ve seen a lot of theater, and I feel really respectful of what theater is, and what actors do with language and gesture.
- Deborah Lohse & Anna Bass in “Another Parade”
So I think in some ways it would feel a little bit presumptuous to say that what I do is dance theater. I think the term assumes a somewhat 50 / 50 relationship: half dance and half theater.
We’re dancers, our training is in dance, but we also happen to be unique performers. A lot of what we do is production of who we are—not characters that we’re playing, but different versions of ourselves in different, imagined situations. I have so much respect for actors who literally embody other people, and I don’t feel we do that.
Maybe if I wasn’t married to an actor and didn’t see so much theater and have such an admiration for it, it might be sort of easier to get on the bandwagon. But I’m happy for it.
I think we use a lot of gesture. I think there is something communicative about the work that I make that I’m definitely conscious of, that I try to develop.
But I don’t know; I don’t feel like half of what I do is theater. I think it really lives in the world of physicality and what can we communicate through movement and performance of that movement. It’s really movement.
But I love the question. And I love that dance theater is existing; I’m grateful for it, for I think some producers I think are widening what they see is dance. And anytime we can embrace as much diversity in an art form I think we’re going in the right direction.