As the host of NPR’s This American Life, Ira Glass is accustomed to exposure — at least of a certain kind. Yet as interviewer, compiler, and narrator of the program’s stories, Glass is a master of drawing the humor and pathos from others’ lives while avoiding the spotlight himself.
In his current collaboration with modern dance duo Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass, Glass is more visible. It’s not just the fact that he appears live on stage, or the fact that he actually dances (and he does, and it’s gloriously goofy). The real excitement is in personal revelations: He performed magic shows as a kid; his wife sometimes accuses him of behaving like Mr. Spock.
There are many reasons this show works so beautifully. After ten years of collaboration, Barnes and Bass are masters of evoking character and emotion through dance, plastic facial expressions, physical comedy, and subtle body language — all silent art forms. Glass, of course, is a consummate deejay of the spoken word, mixing narration, quotation, music, and sound effects into stories. Together, these three produce a perfect — and perfectly unexpected — union.
As might be expected, Glass organizes the evening into three acts, basing himself at a lectern and using a tablet to bring in sound clips (he even precedes each tap of the screen with an overhead flourish — a nod to his magic days). Sometimes, he speaks as the dancers dance; sometimes he gives the stage over to them. In one memorable segment, Glass recounts consulting with a lawyer over whether he could air this sound bite from writer David Rakoff: “You can suck a mile of cock; it does not make you Oscar Wilde. I know, I’ve tried.” As if in response, Barnes and Bass come out in prim cable-knit sweaters and plaid skirts, then engage in sexually charged exchanges with an invisible conversant, backed by James Brown’s “Sex Machine.”
At the heart of the show are reflections on love and the nature of partnership — that curious blend of affection, competition, desire, and loss. As poet Donald Hall reads poems written about his wife’s death, Barnes and Bass stand in trench coats on a tabletop, shuffling forward and back in a slow, lonely standoff. Out of this unexpected union of dance and radio comes a show that, like the work of its collaborators, blends moments of delight and hilarity with glimpses of the soft underbelly of human experience. It’s magic.