Magical, misfit marriage of Ira Glass and dance

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This American Life host Ira Glass with dancers Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass. Photo: David Bazemore

Dance is primarily show, don’t tell. Radio is tell, can’t show. Put them together, you get the magical, misfit marriage that is “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host,” coming to Zellerbach Hall on Saturday, Mar. 29, presented by Cal Performances.

Mysteriously blending the talky talent of Ira Glass, host and creator of the public radio program This American Life, with the devastatingly beautiful, humanistic choreography of Monica Bill Barnes and her longtime collaborator, dancer Anna Bass, a miracle arises. Both genres get a leg-up: elevating the no-talk, all-talk mediums to something one might find in a dream. A sort of surreal landscape where anecdotes are inscribed with arabesques and the moral of each story is mired in marvelous muscularity. Imagine a dichotomous duet as sweet as the chocolate-peanut butter pairing of a Reese’s, but better for your health. 

The 90-minute show was conceived in bits and pieces after Glass saw the Monica Bill Barnes Company in New York City. Glass sent Barnes a note, asking her to provide choreography for the theatrical film release of “This American Life Live!,” a variety show based on his popular NPR program. Their combined approaches clicked: serving up an improbable banquet of improvisation and tight structure unified into a cohesive “meal” by a certain shared fondness for life’s most expressive, vulnerable moments.

The quirky show, touring nationally, was a Bay Area hit at San Francisco’s Nourse Theater in November last year and Glass began to look for a return engagement. Berkeley was top on the list; partly due to Barnes being a hometown girl.

Barnes grew up in Berkeley, playing soccer, sparring on the debate team and (by self-admission) “writing bad plays.” Her father, Ken Barnes, was the senior pastor of Arlington Community Church, overseeing the congregation for 22 years. In 1995, after graduating with a B.A. in Philosophy and Theater from the UC San Diego, Barnes moved to New York, drawn by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

“There’s a huge connection to Berkeley,” Glass said in an interview. “Monica grew up going to see shows at Zellerbach. Our first pick was Zellerbach.”

Barnes writes in an email that seeing dance companies at the hall — especially the Ailey company — was a huge impetus for her leap to the East Coast. “I was so inspired by their dancing and (I was) dying to live in New York City,” she said.

Choreography is now causing a westward creep as Barnes’ site-specific and full-evening works attract the interest of presenters across the country. About the collaboration with Glass, she says the biggest surprise is how easily he’s fit into her company’s artistic team. Barnes has danced for 10 years with Bass, constructed countless real and imagined spaces with designers Kelly Hanson (costume/set)  and Jane Cox (lighting), but Glass has managed, almost instantaneously, to become a beloved fifth wheel. “Ira feels so natural, it’s like he has been in the company for years,” she marvels.

Glass says there’s a feeling of experimentation they have in common. “I’m going to try this and I don’t know if it’s going to work!” is practically the show’s developmental anthem. The shared mentality comes from making human work that doesn’t come with epic size, he suggests. Stories about everyday people have moments where the stakes can’t be so big. “In an everyday story, the climactic, epic moment is a moment where the person stands in a situation and doesn’t know how to act,” he explains.

This momentary vacuum, so full of substantive content it cancels language, would be dead air on radio. But with dance, it’s an opportunity for physical expression: a space where un-corny, awkward, physical truth-telling propels a story down the rabbit hole of personal, intimate narrative. It’s like adding music or sound effects to a radio show — boosting the feelings and tone with additional sensory input, Glass says.

Many of the stories told in the show are about love and loss. Although Barnes and Bass don’t speak aloud, their stories, recorded during interviews with Glass, allow audiences to “get to know their thoughts.” Glass, for his part, warms up with stretching and secret exercises he says he “won’t talk about with the press,” but doesn’t dance. “I’d have to take a nap if I did even 15 minutes of what they do,” he says, not laughing. With over 300 lighting cues, fast costume changes and numerous props, the entertainment is tightly scripted, with just a few opportunities for Glass to ad-lib.

One thing you won’t see in Berkeley is a story that refused to fit the model. A dance of Barnes’ features dancers running in circles for seven minutes while mylar confetti creates a wind storm around them. Paired with the story of an airport shuttle driver, retiring after 30 years of driving the same loop, Glass thought it would be a beauty. “We kept putting it in, taking it out; putting it in, taking it out,” he says. “Never worked. It felt pretentious in its grandeur.”

By straying into these unexplored territories: where dance may go, but words intrude, or where words capture a universality the human body would render too concrete, Glass and Barnes have found a synergistic nucleus. Call it stories with legs — or fling both arms wide and spin until you are dizzy: either way, it’s a path to reflecting on the human condition and rejoicing in its vagaries.

“Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host” is at Zellerbach Hall for one performance, Saturday, Mar. 29 at 8 p.m. At time of writing, the performance is sold out, but Cal Performances has an email notification list in case tickets become available (you need to be logged in with your Cal Performances account to join the notification list). 

Check out Berkeleyside’s event calendar for many more events, and make sure to post your own community happenings.

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