Music for Class: Variations on a Theme

Monica Bill Barnes' music choices help pull out the individual.

Barnes (left) builds choreography on her dancers' quirky sense of humor.

Monica Bill Barnes’ work is sure to make any audience chuckle, but she doesn’t always intend to be the comedian of modern dance. “Ironically, things I find tragic, other people find funny,” says the New York City–based choreographer. “I think it’s the sincerity and genuine effort behind the material that people react to. Audiences identify with us as people instead of admire us as dancers.”

It’s true that you can’t help but feel as if you’re watching old friends when Bill Barnes and her three dancers take the stage. They each bring a fresh perspective to the movement—a theme the choreographer emphasizes in her classes at colleges and festivals like American Dance Festival and Bates Dance Festival. “I’m not in a position where I have a long period of interaction with students. We only have two hours, so studying how I move won’t serve them beyond the class,” she says. “I lay it out in the beginning: Rip this material up. Don’t be concerned with doing it right or you’ll lose a sense of discovery. Stick to the choreography, but imbue the movement with your unique timing and focus.” After all, it’s these personal touches that make dance compelling for artists and audiences alike. DT



Work: La Bohème

Recording: Metropolitan Opera

Work: Goldberg Variations

Artist: Glenn Gould

“I’m a big sucker for opera, and I love to change music wildly. Though these are different from each other, they are both very powerful pieces. It’s helpful to have slightly overwhelming music because it asks the performer to step up. Music shouldn’t be a background: It’s a powerful element, and you need to offer something just as bold to justify being onstage with it.”


Artist: Elvis Presley

Album: Elvis As Recorded Live At Madison Square Garden

Artist: Tina Turner

Song: “What You Get Is What You See (Live)”

“Live recordings help me ask the dancers to make performance choices because you can hear so clearly how singers are doing it in concert. I’ll never bring a phrase set to a specific piece, so you definitely have to pay more attention to the music, because it will start and stop. It keeps you spontaneous and active, which is exactly how you should feel during performance.”


Artist: Bob Dylan

Album: The Bootleg Series

Artist: The Jackson 5

Album: The Ultimate Collection

“I identify with singers who don’t sound like anyone else because they’re so unmistakable. Sometimes I’ll use the same song but with different singers’ recordings as an example of how we can really shape the same material in different ways. Dance accurately, but find a way to distinguish yourself as an individual. I think that’s our goal as performers.” 


Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Monica Bill Barnes & Company 

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