Listeners of National Public Radio know Ira Glass as the voice of This American Life. In a tone that’s disarmingly casual and pleasantly nasal, Glass crafts stories on everything from bedbugs to gambling to babies switched at birth, weaving tales as entertaining as they are poignant, human, and memorable. Given Glass’s success as the host of the popular radio program and the nation’s top podcast, one might think he can take on anything. It’s hard to say whether his latest project — a collaboration with a modern-dance company — is an attempt to prove or disprove that theory.
This Saturday, October 19, UCSB Arts & Lectures brings to the Granada One Radio Host, Two Dancers. The “two dancers” of the show’s title are Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass of Monica Bill Barnes & Company. Their contact with the radio host dates back a couple of years to a talent show in a Brooklyn bar, where Barnes served as a judge on a parody of Dancing with the Stars in which Glass — a self-proclaimed “stiff person over 50 who works at a computer all day” — won second place for a modern-dance duet.
Characterizing his prior perception of modern-dance productions as “moving-statue dancers with abstract, hummy music playing in the background,” Glass said that attitude exploded the first time he went to see one of Barnes’s productions. “I had an experience I’ve never had in a dance performance,” he said. “Even though I work in a medium that’s all words and she works in a medium with no words, I recognized something very similar to what I’m trying to do. The things she’s putting on stage are funny, sincere, and emotional. She’s documenting these small, personal, human moments.”
Barnes, for her part, is a longtime fan of This American Life.
“I always feel so deeply involved in his stories,” she said, echoing Glass’s comments on their shared sensibility. “The way Ira is using radio is the same way I’m trying to use dance: It’s intimate, and it doesn’t hide the humanity behind the stories.”
Having discovered their common ground, Glass, Barnes, and her longtime dance partner Bass crafted three short dances that were broadcast to cinemas across the nation in May 2012. In February this year, they performed a live version that brought down the house at Carnegie Hall. Glass attributes part of the success of the show to the fact that it’s so totally unexpected. “We’re doing work in a medium that doesn’t exist anywhere,” he noted.
Clearly, part of what Glass relishes is the absurdity of presenting himself in a role for which he is ill equipped. “Nonexistent,” he said when asked to describe his dance background. “I’m the least qualified person you could have. Even other public-radio personalities would be better; at least Peter Sagal was a good bowler before he got into radio, and Garrison Keillor is very musical.”
Joking aside, Glass admitted he doesn’t really dance much in this production, though the brief moment where he does “jump in” took “intense preparation. I went through a phase of believing I would physically never be able to do the movements Monica was showing me,” he said. For the most part, Glass lets Barnes and Bass do the dancing and sticks to what he does best: merging a series of stories into a satisfying whole. As part of the creative process for this show, Glass recorded interviews with both Barnes and Bass, and though they will not speak live, their voices are featured alongside his.
The show also draws on work from the archives of both artists; at their very first rehearsal, Bass explained, Glass showed up with a list of his favorite radio stories, and Barnes came with a list of movement segments and situations. Natural pairings of words and movement began to emerge straightaway.
“Both Ira and Monica have this rich, thorough history of their own work stored in their memory banks,” Bass said. “It’s been incredible to see them dig into the files of the past 10 to 15 years.”
The result of that digging is a show that serves to celebrate the unique trajectory of each artist’s career, as well as creating something that Barnes describes as “more than the sum of its parts.” Everyone involved agrees that silliness is central to the show’s premise. “It’s as ridiculous as you imagine it could be,” Barnes said, adding that though the show was not designed for dance-savvy viewers, they welcome those familiar with modern dance.
“The dance audience is one of the most generous audiences you’ll ever find,” Barnes noted. “The curtain can come up and two dancers can be lying face down, and a dance audience will say, ‘Great, so it starts like this,’ whereas the average audience will think, ‘They fell over.’”
Glass echoed Barnes’s excitement about the chance to perform for a dance-conversant audience. “One of the things we’re excited about in Santa Barbara is the sophisticated dance community you have there because of the strong [Arts & Lectures] dance series,” he said. “It will be super-interesting to see how it comes across.”
Yet Glass encouraged those with little interest in or exposure to dance to attend, counting himself among that crowd and invoking again his first experience of Barnes’s work. “It was the fact that they were just two fortyish-year-old women with these incredibly expressive faces who were out to entertain. That they were documenting recognizable feelings but doing it while totally out for fun, that reminded me so much of what we do on the radio,” he said.
“You don’t watch this show and wonder, ‘Am I getting this?’ You just get it.”
UCSB Arts & Lectures brings One Radio Host, Two Dancers to the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Saturday, October 19, at 8 p.m. Call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu for tickets and info.