Ira Glass, Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass Mince Words and Moves

By Julie Potter

November 1, 2013, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

NEWSFLASH: DANCERS can speak and radio hosts can boogie too. But you’ll have to go to the upcoming performance at the Nourse Theatre, Three Acts, Two Dancers and One Radio Host, to find out just how This American Life’s Ira Glass, choreographer Monica Bill Barnes and dancer Anna Bass navigate the collision of roles.

image of Ira Glass and two dancers
Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host
Photo by Ebru YILDIZ

According to Glass, the premise of the show is “A mix of two things that really have no business being on stage together at all. Dance is all visuals, no talking. Radio’s all talking, no visuals.” Barnes considers this to be generally accurate in her experience.

“I certainly feel like there are amazing artists, one of my favorites being Joe Goode from San Francisco, who totally deals with words, but the dance that I’ve made hasn’t included language. I haven’t chosen to ever go there, so its accurate in that it’s a generalism, but also in terms of what Ira does on the radio and what I do with my choreography. We’re bringing these two things together that don’t naturally overlap in their mediums.”

The collaboration began with a sort of inversion of roles during an edition of the Talent Show, a series in New York City. The show in which Glass and Barnes participated was based on Dancing With the Stars. Barnes judged and Glass danced.

“I was talking he was dancing. It was an amazing event – actually one of my favorite dance shows I’ve ever seen. The other two judges were David Rakoff, who I started working with at the This American Life Live! show and Eugene Mirman who’s a great comic,” Barnes recalls.

After meeting at the Talent Show, Glass attended an evening of Barnes’s work at The Joyce, which led to their first collaboration.

Glass commissioned two works by Barnes for This American Life Live! – The Invisible Made Visible, filmed in Chicago and streamed at movie theaters all over North America in 2012. Similar in format to San Francisco’s Pop-Up Magazine (minus the recording and streaming), This American Life Live! features a series of short acts of mixed mediums onstage. In The Invisible Made Visible, Glass talks about how seeing the work of Barnes was the impetus for adapting his radio show to share something that just couldn’t be transmitted by sound waves.

“They [Monica Bill Barnes and Company] had this sensibility. With this dance troupe I found myself watching their faces more than I’ve ever watched. They were expressing very ordinary moments and feelings, something relatable expressed through movement…they seemed like regular people who happened to be dancing. There was something about this and our show [This American Life], capturing these daily things.” Glass said in his introduction.

Bass is a member of the Monica Bill Barnes and Company and has worked with the choreographer for more than ten years. The two see each other almost every day between rehearsing, performing and touring. The process with Glass to create Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host started rigorously in January. “Ira is a wildly committed dancer in his attention to detail and process. There are times I’ll try out material and it looks so different on his body. He’s a foot taller than me so we adjust things.” comments Barnes.

The artists spent two weeks in residence at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC) in March to further develop the work. Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host premiered in April at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia.

Ira Glass dancing with two dancers
Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host, Photo by Ebru YILDIZ

“Truthfully, in every performance we learn more and are adjusting things. We’ve discovered the heart of the show, but it’s a wonderful ongoing slightly ever-shifting work,” notes Barnes. For her, working with Glass lends a fresh spontaneity to the piece.

“Ira has a script but he’s such a natural charismatic performer that when the audience responds in a different way he’ll go off script. The show feels like a roller coaster as a performer. I’ll be listening for my cue, knowing it may shift, and the audience response may change, so really Anna and I have entered a whole different world as performers… these performances really feel like exciting on-your-toes experiences we are loving with all the unique challenges the show raises on a performance level.”

Since Barnes does not normally work with language, the added element of performing alongside a narrator and storyteller also refreshes her relationship to the audience in that it provides a level of transparency related to the action, which would remain more abstract in a strictly dance concert.

Barnes, a Berkeley native, performed with Joe Goode in New York a decade ago. Her relationship to the Bay Area is personal, having been first exposed to dance in the region where much of her family still lives. “I had an amazing high school dance teacher Jacqueline Burgess and I was in the Bay recently for her retirement celebration… she was an incredible influence on me and had so much to do with shaping my sense of myself as an artist, woman and human being. The high school years are so formative.”

Regarding future work, Barnes still isn’t sold on employing words in her dances. “My husband is an actor and I love acting but have no interest in it or illusion that I’m good at it. Every show I make is unique unto itself. Words are essential to this dance but I hope that the next dance wouldn’t repeat anything directly. I don’t feel like words are going to be the thing I carry away from this show but I do feel like the process is having a profound effect for the work I make after it.”

Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host will be performed November 16 and 17 at the Nourse Theatre in San Francisco.

This article appeared in the November 2013 issue of In Dance.

Julie Potter is a public practice specialist, performance curator and writer based in San Francisco. As the Director of ODC Theater, she provides artistic and administrative leadership including season programming, artist residencies and public engagement. Potter was previously the Creative Ecosystem Senior Program Manager at YBCA and completed her M.A. in 2016 at Wesleyan’s Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance.