Hot summer moves

Bates Fest opens with Monica Bill Barnes
By JUNE VAIL  |  July 14, 2010

ANOTHER PARADE Monica Bill Barnes and Company.

The 2010 Bates Dance Festival's first main stage performance, a concert by Monica Bill Barnes and Company, was hot — playfully theatrical, intensely human, ardently physical.

And the theater was hot, too. But as I fanned myself with the program, New York choreographer Barnes and her three excellent company members astonished me with fast-paced, articulate dancing. Their three pieces explored how femininity is performed in our society and on stage, examining how self-aggrandizement and the drive to fulfill individual desires struggles with self-doubt and the urge to please others.

In the opening solo, Here We Are, Barnes entered the stage wearing a rust-colored skirt and white blouse studded with sparkles, with a little keyhole neckline. She is slight but muscular, with dark hair parted in the middle and straight dark brows reminiscent of a Frida Kahlo self-portrait. She stopped to face the audience, striking various poses as if surveying herself in a mirror. Her precise gestures corresponded to the rhythms of the accompanying song, "Wild is the Wind," sung in smoky tones by Nina Simone. In all of the evening's dances, diverse music choices supported and inspired the dancing's rhythms, timing, and duration, and created emotional energy fields.

Barnes's signature movement style was fluent but regularly punctuated with stop-action moments of stillness (often with a switch in focus) and staccato signals (nods, shrugs, waves, shouts). The relationship of body language to lyrics was indirect and ambiguous. For example, in Here We Are, a fantasy self-image and romantic expectations were evoked in fading light: Barnes's hands formed a small circle, or maybe a keyhole, into which she breathed imaginary life.

The second piece, a trio titled mostly fanfare, was presented as a work in progress that will premiere at Jacob's Pillow later this summer. With vintage songs, again performed by Simone, mostly fanfare amplified the preceding solo's theme: self-representation in everyday life and on stage. The three dancers (Anna Bass, Charlotte Bydwell, and Barnes) wore dark skirts with white camisole tops and towering white ostrich-feather head-dresses fastened with thin harnesses glittering with rhinestones. They were circus ponies, fan dancers, or Madame de Pompadour: in any case, they were self-consciously performers, and their moments in the limelight were transitory. Familiar love songs (popularized by crooner Johnny Mathis, among others) "Let it Be Me" and "The Twelfth of Never" made sense in a new way when interpreted as performers' cravings for love, admiration, and public approval.

Mostly fanfare concluded with increasingly dense showers of sparkling sequins blown onto the stage by a giant offstage fan. Feathers flying in the wind, one dancer gingerly made her way across the floor risking metaphorically perilous shards. She stopped at the boundary of the proscenium arch to turn toward the now-empty stage. As the lights dimmed, the music — and the dance — ended with recorded applause.

Barnes's observations on the nature of performance in life and art culminated in the final piece, Another Parade. Barnes, Bass, and Bydwell, joined by Celia Rowlson-Hall, dance to several fired-up rhythm and blues songs (including James Brown's funky, raunchy, wonderful "Sex Machine") interspersed with stately and understated excerpts from the Bach Cello Suites. The dancers' retro skirts and sweaters, with iconic circle pins, again evoked the '50s, and implied a Lawrence Welk-y veneer at odds with aggressive drives and vulgar in- your-face gestures.

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    In an unfavorable economic climate, what do choreographers need? They must have exceptional talent and skill, of course.
  •   HOT SUMMER MOVES  |  July 14, 2010
    The 2010 Bates Dance Festival's first main stage performance, a concert by Monica Bill Barnes and Company, was hot — playfully theatrical, intensely human, ardently physical.
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 See all articles by: JUNE VAIL