Monica Bill Barnes - Photo by Steven Schreiber
What do you call a former philosophy major with a wry sense of humor, a weakness for costumes that tell a story, and a taste for rhythm and blues? One thing you may call her is a choreographer.
As a seven year old being raised in the academic enclave of Berkeley, California, Monica Bill Barnes declared to her parents – a minister father and women's studies professor mother – that she wanted to be a dancer. She made a detour in her college years, studying philosophy with a focus on ethics at the University of Southern California at San Diego (UCSD). Her plan was to go to law school and perhaps become a judge.
"I always danced and loved it," she explains now, and notes that she danced steadily through college under the guidance of a special mentor, Jean Isaacs, who was trained in the canon of American modern dance -- Graham, Horton, and Cunningham techniques – and is best known for a series of site-specific dances along the San Diego trolley line.
It was the pile of graduate and law school applications her senior year, though, that made Barnes face the fact that she couldn't imagine spending her days without dancing.
Monica Bill Barnes' training in logic and critical thinking has come in handy. "Philosophy teaches you how to think and how to articulate your ideas," she says. "Choreography is essentially the same task."
Another philosophical axiom comes to mind in relation to Monica Bill Barnes' 2009 Another Parade: Perspective is everything. Much of this young choreographer's concerns have to do with the heightened experience of performance, on stage and in life, and how authenticity is challenged and heightened by that artificial relationship. As she explained recently during a cell phone conversation from New York's Union Square, "what I'm dealing with is our experience on the stage. How does the fact that I'm brightly lit and you're sitting in the dark affect the way we feel about each other?"
In Another Parade Barnes zeroes in on awkwardness, earnestness, and the steps that can be missed when things just don't go according to plan. Another Parade is anchored by Deborah Lohse, who also leads her own New York company, ad hoc Ballet, which creates works incorporating elements of classical ballet, modern dance and theatre "while exploring current social tribulations."
"In a way I've always felt we're really a company of soloists," Barnes once said. "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 as it comes from the specificity that the individuals bring to it. "
The quartet of women in their slightly frumpy skirts and bulky sweaters lay their hearts on the line, vamping, shadowboxing, trying to recover from their mistakes.
"I, too, have overdressed for an occasion or been too expressive and regretted it"…Barnes says. "It's kind of like 6th grade when you walk across the room to ask someone to dance—you're deeply grateful when someone says yes, because it allows the show to go on."
Another Parade is funny – a rare quality in contemporary American dance – but the laughter it engenders is the laughter of recognition and empathy. The music helps too. The score crisscrosses – and maybe double-crosses -- Bach with James Brown, Tina Turner, Elvis and Burt Bacharach.
Mostly Fanfare, the work-in-progress on tonight's Bates program, is musically-driven.
Monica Bill Barnes fell in love with the recordings of soul singer Nina Simone, but has avoided delving into the singer's remarkable, and remarkably tortured, biography. In Mostly Fanfare Barnes' focus is on the expressive timbre, the suggestive sound, of Simone's voice. Like Another Parade, Mostly Fanfare addresses the paradoxes of performance. Barnes explores the effort it takes for dancers in huge headdresses to keep their heads up and present the illusion of easy, graceful movement.
"The element of failure is always touching, so when it succeeds we're invested in it -- because we see the potential of it not always going well," Monica Bill Barnes explains. "That's the kind of conversation performers are constantly having with an audience. This is our moment to fall down or shine."
C 2010 Debra Cash