Sunday, July 11, 2010

Monica Bill Barnes & Company

Monica Bill Barnes is a goofball.

Contemporary Dance can be serious, obtuse and cerebral. Well, that may be the norm generally speaking, but there's one young company on the scene that's breaking the mold by offering choreography filled with humor and sarcasm. Monica Bill Barnes Dance Company is all about messing with your mind and messing with tradition. It takes skill to pull off comedy that is not slap sticky or sophomoric. It takes talent to make an audience believe you are a serious goofball. This company revels in doing what's not supposed to be shown in performance dance. For example: a dancer does "real" movements of turning with an extended leg behind her and then balancing off center and then kicking her leg over head. What a feat! Cool, impressive, but then this same Barnes dancer turns to the audience with a look-what-I-just-did and smiles. Tada! That's not supposed to be seen. But that's what Barnes has got going for her; she's revealing the more mundane humanity that is hidden below the surface in the magic of dance. She mixes skilled movements with everyday gestures and emotions.

At the Bates Dance Festival on Saturday night, the audience was in for an evening of the artist being non-complacent. Think of singers Bjork and Rickie Lee Jones whose style is great but weird. Or Andy Warhol who made soup cans and other regular household items into high art. Some artists have to stretch the comfort level and Barnes' unequivocal use of humor does just that. She isn't dabbling in being funny sometimes, this is who she is, and this is how she thinks.

The company presented three dances. A solo for Barnes and two group pieces. The first group dance "Mostly Fanfare" was a preview of a yet unfinished piece that will be premiered in a few weeks at Jacob's Pillow dance festival in western Massachusetts. Wearing feather headdresses, three dancers went through their paces as if they were remnants from a sideshow that needed the job and didn't have anywhere else to go. The music added a sense of melancholy with the deep vocals of singer Nina Simone. Next, "Another Parade" from 2009 featured four dancers wearing skirts and heavy sweaters with mock-turtle necks with brooches. The costumes by Kelly Hansen were so familiar and so brilliantly strange at the same time. A solo dancer began by alternating between sweeping full-bodied moves to intimate ticks, stares, and facial gestures. Then as the piece continued all four dancers continued to build on this juxtaposition of moving so quickly between the dancerly moves and the everyday moves. This is not easy to do well, and all in the company did it expertly. Barnes choreographic sensibility of combining witty and strange creates characters that are easy to feel a connection to. The music helped enhance the chaos by moving from Bach to James Brown to Burt Bacharach.

Barnes and Company are the first performance of the 2010 Bates Dance Festival. Great start!

Monica Bill Barnes & Company, Schaffer Theater, July 10, 2010 Lewiston, Maine
Photo by Steven Schreiber


  1. Hi Jessica,

    Along the lines of Monica breaking the mold, I invite you to check out her recent films made in collaboration with filmmaker Celia Rowlson-Hall and inspired by 'Mostly Fanfare' (they will exist online only until Aug 24th).

  2. really cool films, thanks for the tip.