It’s 9 a.m. and I’m lying on the floor of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, my back cool against the polished marble surface. Above me, soft streaks of morning light pour through the glass ceiling of the museum’s towering American Wing, its majestic halls empty save for a dozen of us scattered around the gilded sculpture of Roman goddess Diana in matching repose. I close my eyes and remind myself that I’m not dreaming.
When I open them, choreographer Monica Bill Barnes is standing over me in a gold-sequined gown and running shoes, smiling warmly as she beckons our group over to a long table dressed with breakfast offerings — the last stop of a choreographed sprint around the Met conceived by Barnes and aptly dubbed the Museum Workout. “This had to be the most challenging and exhaustive project I’ve ever worked on,” she later shared with me. “It was a wonderful type of madness from conception to performance, kind of like crawling up a very steep mountain.”
Over the next two weeks, Barnes will be fixing a fanciful gaze on the shores of Santa Barbara for a much-anticipated residency that will include leading a series of technique and composition classes for students of UCSB’s dance department while setting a commissioned work on 15 members of the university’s dance company. “I’m so excited, and have a lot of ideas I can’t wait to throw at these dancers,” Barnes exclaimed. Also in the works is a public staging of her hilariously poignant homage to the archetypal “office guy” in the not-to-be-missed Happy Hour. “It’s the show we like doing the most, because we get to dress up as men and immerse ourselves in this alternate experience,” she laughed.
For the past two decades, Barnes has made a habit of turning the dance world on its head, shedding any obligation to a traditional format and “bringing dance where it doesn’t belong.” Her collaboration with the Met would prove to be one of her most ambitious undertakings to date, cutting gingerly through institutional red tape and slowly winning over one curator at a time. “The concept of blending the physical and psychological aspects of art really appealed to me, and rubbed up against a specific culture that took us three years to persuade.” The results, she concedes, were more than worth the trouble, as anyone fortunate enough to have taken in a marble rendering of Perseus with the Head of Medusa while joining Barnes in a series of jumping jacks set to a Lionel Richie tune in the early morning hours of an empty museum would agree.
A native of Berkeley, Barnes received her bachelor of arts in philosophy from the University of California, San Diego, before setting off for New York City to pursue a passion in the art of performance. She enrolled in the Tisch School of the Arts while “carrying around a costume bag,” and in 1997, formed Monica Bill Barnes & Company (MBB&C), working the black-box circuit around town in a series of one-woman shows and cabaret duets that immediately struck a chord with arts critics hungry for a side of humor to accompany their already-plentiful dance diets. “The very crass truth is that I had no idea how to really do it, but felt clear that I wanted to make dance feel more relatable, and humor was such an important aspect of it,” she said, before adding, “It took me so long to home in on something I had always written on my mission statement.”
In 2012, Barnes found an unlikely fan in public radio host Ira Glass, who approached her with the wild idea of combining the genres of radio and dance (“two art forms that have no business being together”) for a live rendition of his popular radio series, This American Life. Together with her artistic copilot, Anna Bass, the trio hit the road with Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host, selling out to art houses across the country before making their way to Australia. “I’ve never been surrounded by such intelligent audiences,” Barnes recalled of the experience.
To say that MBB&C have carved out a successful niche creating unlikely experiences for every kind of audience is only part of their master plan. In between performances, Barnes has made a point of visiting universities and studios to share in her intimate philosophy of creating work “that will draw people into the experience.” Pulling from an unfussy toolbox filled with what she refers to as gestures and borrowed dance forms, Barnes finds inspiration in drawing out a dancer’s personality with the same attention reserved for physical skill and technique. “To shape a personality and make an audience empathize with you — that’s what really fascinates me,” she stressed.
Happy Hour takes place Friday, November 17, and Saturday, November 18, 7 p.m., at UCSB’s Ballet Studio (Humanities and Social Sciences Bldg.). Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at theaterdance.ucsb.edu.