116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Audiences seldom sit passively at a Monica Bill Barnes & Company dance event.
True to form, observers will be part of the action when the New York dancers bring their 'Happy Hour” to Hancher's Strauss Hall on Aug. 24 and 25.
'That's a bit unusual in dance, where we train for so many years and we oftentimes, as an art form, are representing a certain kind of grace and a skill level that people don't feel like they have in common,” Barnes, 44, said by phone from New York after finishing rehearsal for a new 20th anniversary show opening off-Broadway on Sept. 9.
'With my company, we're really interested in actually finding ways that the audience really relates to us. It has more in common sometimes with elements of silent film, Buster Keaton. ... We aspire to some sense of an ‘Everyman' character that you feel like you have a lot in common with.”
Hancher audiences saw Barnes and company partner Anna Bass do just that when they teamed up with Ira Glass in 2014 for 'Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host,” presented at the Englert Theatre in downtown Iowa City. In that instance, the audio nature of radio dovetailed with the visual nature of dance, because all three performers worked toward the same goal.
'We loved making that show with Ira and had such a good experience when we were there (in Iowa City) the last time, and are so happy to be coming back,” Barnes said. This time, her company will be launching Hancher's 45th anniversary season.
A native of Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay Area, she began dance classes at age 7 and moved to New York after college to pursue her art, forming a small company devoted to bringing dance to spaces 'where it doesn't belong.”
It took her three years to convince officials at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to let the company present their interactive 'Museum Workout” there, performing choreographed exercises in the galleries before public hours. Likewise, the Hancher radio show with Glass is another example of creating dance where it doesn't belong.
'We began working with Ira because we just felt like we shared a common sensibility of really wanting to make relatable work,” she said. 'Obviously, he's in the business of making radio and we're in the business of making live shows, but I always felt like Ira was making radio shows like I wanted to make dance shows - that felt like they were organized around an emotional logic. They seemed both entertaining, but also sort of tragic and funny.
'He has a way of weaving together stories, that even though I might not have the same experience as a person telling the story or experiencing the story, he's framing it in a way that feels so relatable. We're using the medium of dance to create really familiar and relatable characters and situations. My hope with every show that I make, is for people in the audience to feel like they share more in common with us as performers.”
'Happy Hour” is set on a smaller scale than the Englert show, which was designed for larger spaces where a proscenium arch frames the stage and the audience sits in theater seats. In Hancher's versatile rehearsal/performance hall, the audience will be seated at cabaret tables close to the action.
'After we made the show with Ira ... as a company, we wanted to make something that felt incredibly different,” Barnes said. '‘Happy Hour' is more of an immersive piece.”
Creative producing director Robert Saenz de Viteri steps into the action to host the office party - a slightly awkward social gathering of people who don't really know each other, which leads to humorous moments. The invisible fourth wall separating actors and audiences in conventional settings is completely gone.
'We're being in the experience together, so it feels more like coming to an event,” she said. 'The hope is that you feel like you're getting immersed in an event, rather than sitting in the dark and being able to observe. We actually are inviting the audience to have a stronger role, a more unusual role in the experience.”
The host creates some dialogue, but once Barnes and Bass enter the scenario, the action becomes movement-based and silent. And even though both dancers are classically trained, their movements are anything but classic.
'The kind of attention most dancers put into a pirouette we put into looking like we're running into a chair or stumbling,” Barnes said. 'We're putting our skill set as dancers into unusual choices, working with movement.”
They dress in men's suits, which gives them broader choices for physicality.
'We're not cross-dressing,” Barnes said. 'We're definitely not women in suits. What we are putting on is what feels like recognizable male gestures and movements. Seeing a woman dressed as a man brings up all kinds of questions on how we look at gender and movement. Putting on these suits opened up a whole other conversation about what we're comfortable laughing at.”
Buster Keaton got some of his biggest laughs in moments where it looked like he was hurting himself, but if a women were doing those pratfalls, audiences would be less likely to laugh, Barnes said.
So what she and Bass are doing blurs the lines between what's acceptable, whether it's stumbling as they move, or 'hitting on” a woman at the office party.
'It's one of the most enjoyable shows we've done,” she said. 'It happily confuses people and asks them to think about our perception of men and women.
'Our hope for the show is that it does make you question some of your assumptions about gender and what's appropriate.”
WHAT: Hancher presents Monica Bill Barnes & Company's 'Happy Hour”
WHERE: Strauss Hall at Hancher, 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Aug. 24 is sold out; tickets remain for 9 p.m. Aug. 24 and 6:30 p.m. Aug. 25
TICKETS: $10 to $25 general admission, (319) 335-1160, 1-800-HANCHER or Hancher.uiowa.edu/2017-18/HappyHour
ARTIST'S WEBSITE: Monicabillbarnes.com