Monica Bill Barnes is on a roll. The Carol Burnett of dance, Barnes dazzles audiences with her quirky humor and examination of the elegant in the awkward. This summer her nonstop career momentum continues with the American Dance Festival debut of Monica Bill Barnes & Company in Another Parade; a Jacob’s Pillow residency and world premiere of Mostly Fanfare; and a season at The Joyce in New York City. The California native’s virtuosic stumbling, tripping and falling have single-handedly assured a place for humor in the canon of contemporary dance.
Since moving to The Big Apple in 1995, Barnes has put 12 evening-length works under her belt, along with an MFA from NYU/Tisch School of the Arts and an extensive repertory performed throughout NYC and in 30 cities around the globe. She has received numerous grants and recognitions for her groundbreaking work, and she has served as a guest artist at University of North Carolina School of the Arts and at her undergraduate alma mater, the University of California, San Diego. Barnes, along with company members Anna Bass, Charlotte Bydwell and Celia Rowlson-Hall, teach master classes and residencies throughout the United States.
Dance Teacher: How did pairing dance and comedy come about?
Monica Bill Barnes: I never set out to make funny work. I made intensely dramatic work in college. I backed into comedy. Humor comes out of unexpected situations. We often don’t know it until the audience lets out a laugh.
DT: Does this change your approach to performance?
MBB: We like to show our flaws. Things don’t go as planned. We are performers, not beautiful dancers that people are in awe of. But the one thing we do quite well is stumble. It blows my mind that people pay money to see my dancers and me. You can fall on your face in the first eight counts and that’s endlessly interesting. The potential for failure and success every time the curtain goes up is profoundly amazing.
DT: You are known for your large-scale site-specific works like Limelight, a splashy, fun romp performed in a fountain. What are the key ideas when creating site-specific work?
MBB: We carry the theater on our backs. You take away all the security of a seated audience, with the lights pointing at you. It has to be compelling enough that people will stop and watch. There are certain rules of thumb. You have to psychically embrace the fact that you are performing on concrete. Don’t have dancers doing jetés on grass. Always take care of the dancers.
I made a piece at Wave Hill, a beautiful park in the Bronx. I picked this rolling hill. It was a huge site, and I am not a very big person. I just killed myself trying to match the site. It was a good lesson. Don’t just pick a beautiful site. Think about context.
DT: When it comes to teaching master classes, do you teach the phrases from your works?
MBB: I used to, but it was too frustrating and narrow-minded. I prefer to give students less idiosyncratic phrases. I try to assess where they are skill-wise so I am not giving them movement beyond their grasp. I like to flip the class on its head by starting with across-the-floor movement, so we are dancing the entire time. I put on some great Stevie Wonder music. I show simple phrases just once, and everyone follows along.
DT: Who has been the biggest influence on your artistry?
MBB: I was lucky to have Jean Isaacs at UC San Diego as my primary technique teacher. She had this incredible way of pulling from other sources like Limón and reinventing them to be her own. I was able to understand so much about the way my body moved, what was possible and how to develop my skill in order to be an artist. DT
A guild-certified Feldenkrais teacher, Nancy Wozny reports on arts and health from Houston, TX. She is a 2004 Gary Parks Memorial Award winner for emerging dance critics.
Photos from top: by Steven Schreiber; by David Wilson Barnes, both courtesy of Monica Bill Barnes