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Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2
   

Steppin’ Out
Monica Bill Barnes, ’95
by Raymond Hardie

 
     

The Village Voice says she creates “zippy and understated magic.” For the New Yorker she evokes “silent film comedians with coy primping.” She has also been called one of the wittiest young chore-ographers around, as well as zany and too much fun to miss. Perhaps best of all, the New York Times dance reviewer dubbed her “The downtown darling.” In case you missed these accolades, Monica Bill Barnes is building a reputation as one of New York City’s most innovative young dancers and choreographers. Touring with her own company, Monica Bill Barnes and Company, she has performed in venues ranging from the International Fabbrica for Choreographers in Florence, Italy, to the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, to La MaMa theater and the Lincoln Center Institute in New York, to the Sushi Performance Space in San Diego.

Barnes grew up in Berkeley, where her father is a minister in the United Church of Christ and her mother a professor of women’s studies at Cal State East Bay. An only child, she says she was always very physical. When she was seven, she saw her first dance performance and was immediately captivated. “I said, I have to do this,” Barnes recalls, “I have to get on stage. The costumes were a big highlight too. They were all sort of absurd and glittering.”

At UCSD, Barnes started as a philosophy major but once again succumbed to the call of the boards, adding dance and theater classes. “I really enjoyed philosophy. I had it all planned that I was going to go on and get my Ph.D. and teach philosophy. But the closer I came to graduating, I realized I just couldn’t imagine a life without dance.”

Barnes’s talent and passion for dance was obvious to Professor Jean Isaacs, one of her mentors in the dance department. “Monica is by far the most hugely talented dancer/choreographer to come out of our program,” she told @UCSD in a recent interview. “Her vision is unique and seemingly shaped by her love of entertaining dances, which also contain a kind of spiritual longing. So you laugh and cry simultaneously.”

The Company Woman

Now, instead of the philosophy of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Sartre, Barnes’s days are chockablock with rehearsals, choreography and performance. After completing an M.F.A. in dance at N.Y.U. in 1997, Barnes realized that she wanted to create her own company. That company fluctuates in size, from two performers up to 12, according to the scope of the dance piece she’s created. She also likes to cast a wide range of ages and types. “I have one extraordinary young performer, now 14, Lydia Martin, who I started working with when she was 7,” she says. “And I have a couple, Jack and Ursula Frankel, in their 80s, who are often in my work. Then I have a group of seven professional New York dancers who I work with depending on what I’m trying to make.”

In 2003, the prestigious Lincoln Center Institute commissioned Barnes’s This Ain’t No Rodeo, a two-person show performed with Deborah Lohse, ’01. It is made up of six postmodern solo dances with constant nods and winks toward the world of pop culture. A Sinatra song gives way to Berlioz, which in turn transmutes into the Beatles. Lohse clumps into the audience, a self-absorbed diva, engaging and intruding, then clambers back onstage to unveil Barnes, behind the curtain of a strangely haunting child’s Victorian theater. Barnes erupts from her boxy theater like a marionette, freed of her strings but unable to shake off her angular awkwardness. In another scene, the gazelle-like Lohse sweeps the floor with mock elegance as she pirouettes
in ballet shoes and tutu, while Barnes morphs into a black-costumed sophisticate, who glides and swans and dives. But Barnes is ready at any time to puncture any suggestion of grace or sophis-tication with her signal, enigmatic touches: a cough, a stumble, or an inappropriate gravity-defying jump. The end result is a rich tapestry of theatricality and dance, interweaving nuance, virtuosity and clumsiness.

This Ain’t No Rodeo has since become Barnes’s staple touring piece. The original set, designed by Kelly Hanson, M.F.A. ’01, was constructed so it could fit into a truck to tour the New York region. But when Barnes started getting offers from across the United States and Europe, Hanson redesigned it so that it could be broken down into the kind of luggage used to carry ski equipment. “It still weighs a ton,” admits Barnes, “and Deborah Lohse and I can just barely manage it, but we can—and we’ve taken it all over the world. We just haul it to the airport and hope for the best.”

The Gypsy

Like most dancers, Barnes lives a gypsy life even when she is not on the road performing. She shares a tiny studio apartment in the Village with her actor husband, David Wilson Barnes, ’95, and any day might find her in one of New York’s 40-odd studios. Although she feels privileged to have had a number of long residencies with companies that provide top-drawer rehearsal facilities, other studios range from good to bad to disgusting. “I had a year-long residency through the Joyce Theatre and it’s a beautiful studio. It was clean and always heated, an ideal situation,” she says. “But then, we were in the middle of rehearsal in another studio when two mice ran across this filthy floor. I thought, OK, this rehearsal is done and we’re not coming back.”

One of her favorite places is the new Molly and Arthur Wagner dance studios at UCSD, where she has also taught a number of master classes. “It’s such a joy to come to UCSD and teach class in these glorious, huge studios where there are no pillars and no mice,” she says with a wide grin.
Barnes stays fit through her strenuous rehearsals and taking classes. When she is on the road, which is often, she travels with a yoga mat and completes a set routine of yoga exercises and ballet stretches before her nightly performances. “I never really set foot in the gym,” she says. “When you’re rehearsing four hours a day or more, any extra time is better used taking a bath, not working out.” And as for diet, she has found that running from rehearsals to meetings to performances is not really conducive to a healthy dietary regime. “But luckily with modern dance,” she says, “we’re not expected to have the body image that sort of plagues ballet dancers.”

The Choreographer:

Barnes creates a new dance piece one section at a time, scheduling her rehearsals in concentrated blocks of up to three weeks straight. Then she may take a month or two off, and work on other projects. When she develops one section she often workshops it during a residency at a college or theater. “I usually have a couple of residencies during the year, where we’ll go away and intensely work on the new work,” she says. “Oftentimes, I’m able to bring a dancer down with me and I’ll teach in the morning and we’re able to rehearse in the afternoons.”

It takes Barnes about a year to develop an evening-length piece, and she likes to work with her collaborators from the beginning. “She will invite me in quite early in the process to see the material she is generating,” says Hanson, who has designed sets and costumes for her for almost six years. “She will ask me what I think she is making, what associations it brings, and do I have any visual ideas, or any props I want to introduce.”

Barnes has been working on a new full-length show since before last summer, and hopes to premiere it in the fall of 2007. She spends many hours sweating out intricate steps in a studio, but she also figures out a lot of the movement while sipping lattes. “I spend hours in coffee shops and I feel like I do so much of my choreographic work there,” she says. “I think structurally. There’s a lot in my pieces that has to do with theatrical structure. I work a lot with juxtaposition. One dance will have something very funny and then something very cool or sad will happen right near the funny moment. I’ll have the dance happening but then something very important happening right behind it.”

In September, she choreographed one of the trolley dances in San Diego and then quickly returned to New York to premiere Side Show, a new duet with Deborah Lohse, which opened at Joe’s Pub in the Village. “I have the career that I want,” she says. “I’m able to spend 10 months out of the year choreographing my own work. And oftentimes when we tour, I’ll teach a master class. I’m very lucky that I enjoy teaching because realistically, to be able to make it in this field, you do have to do some amount of teaching, and I really graciously accept and embrace it.”

And if you want to find Barnes in January, hit that gypsy trail. She’s currently doing a four-week guest artist residency at North Carolina School of the Arts. In the spring, she begins a fellowship by to conduct choreographic research in the dance and technology facilities at Florida State University. Then it’s on the road again.


 

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