It’s heartening to see that the BAM Harvey Theater is nearly full for Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host, a celebration of forms with a tenuous grip on our cultural attention span. Ira Glass, producer of This American Life, hosts, while Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass of Monica Bill Barnes and Company join him as dancers. Because the evening is part of RadioLoveFest, it’s not surprising that Glass receives the biggest cheer. But it also explains why many seem ready for Glass’s premise: the oft-repeated line that dance and radio have no business being together, with the implication that he was enough of a visionary to make the partnership happen. Dance-savvy audiences frequently see embodied storytelling and textual storytelling share the stage, and aren’t surprised by the ways words and movement together serve to deepen a performance.
Ira Glass and Monica Bill Barnes and Company
February 8, 2017
The show is structured in three acts, like an episode of This American Life. There’s a brief interlude about three-quarters of the way through, during which Glass talks to the audience like a stand-up comedian rather than a radio host. Barnes and Bass offer a welcome counterpoint to Glass’s stage presence—their grace is matched by Glass’s verbal wit, but not his movements, which are boyish and hesitant. Nearly every moment in Three Acts is supposed to be fun and funny, and that’s exactly what’s delivered. Even during the more somber passages, when death and love are discussed, there’s a sense of anticipation that the mood will shift upward. Indeed, any fan of This American Life knows that each show follows a predictable emotional trajectory.
In Act One, which discusses the nature of show business, Glass uses a hysterical story from a member of Riverdance’s national tour to illustrate the difficulties of a dance career. He discusses repetition and how challenging it is. He uses his own inability to stay fresh on a speaking tour as an example. As Barnes and Bass stoically repeat a movement phrase for the third or fourth time, he points out that they’re living the dream. The implication isn’t that Glass lacks the discipline or passion to commit to something difficult, but rather that there must be something wrong with others (dancers) who mistakenly view their rote repetition as anything else. Of course, this sidesteps the fact that many dancers value repetition and view it as a form of discipline and meditation, rather than punishment.
The vaguely insulting attitude persists throughout the evening. While Glass dances and talks live onstage, the dancers only speak in voiceovers. This may have been their choice, but it results in a strange silencing that allows Glass to take ownership over all aspects of the show while the two women are boxed into one category. In Act Three, while discussing how nothing lasts, Glass asks Barnes in a voiceover about the short lifespan of a dance career. He wonders if she has a post-performance plan. “There is no plan,” she says. And that’s it. Besides finding it hard to believe that Barnes has absolutely no vision for her life offstage, the moment reduces one of the most important, complex, and emotionally fraught parts of a performer’s life to a sound bite. As soon as a child starts dancing he or she (but more often, she) is warned about how short the career is. For Glass to toss off something so monumentally important to dancers, while finding time to talk about his own marriage problems, is extremely disappointing.
To his credit, Glass picked near-perfect collaborators. There are few choreographers in New York who’re interested in engaging with “fun.” Barnes’s choreography embodies Glass’s radio personality, with its self-effacing charm and dash of pompousness. Barnes’s gestures and facial expressions lash out like a whip, and the speed at which she and Bass recompose their bodies from movement to stillness, and back again, is unsettling. They play with gendered expectations of behavior and use pristine technique to make an impact in space with their petite frames.
Yet the dance and radio storytelling, despite being two sides of the same coin, rarely become more than the sum of their parts. They contextualize each other, sometimes in subtle ways. Combined, though, there’s no brighter illumination of, or deeper inquiry into, the ideas presented.
During a story about middle-school dances, Bass and Barnes bring six audience members onstage: three who appear to be women and three who appear to be men. As a recording plays interviews conducted with middle-school students in the midst of a hormone- and anxiety-riddled school dance, the six people are paired up in male-female couples and instructed to slow dance. Everyone appears uncomfortable but good-natured.
It’s humorous to listen to the voice of a twelve-year-old boy talk about the unease he feels toward the sea of bodies and possibilities at the dance, while witnessing shuffling adults who might otherwise have thought they left those misgivings behind. Pre-teen awkwardness is still housed in their bodies. Barnes and Bass are perfectly comfortable; their years of performing experience are obvious. There’s a subtle suggestion of what dance could be for people, and what it never really amounts to, because we don’t value or study it; as preteens, we start shrinking away from information our bodies give us.
Unfortunately, the possibilities of this section are overshadowed by the kind of presupposition that characterize much of Glass’s on-air work: that reliving a middle school dance is lighthearted, rather than traumatic; that someone in the audience who appears conventionally masculine wants to dance with a woman; that a woman wants to be touched by a man she doesn’t know. There’s no subversion or exploration, or even inquiry, in either the story or the movement. Girls giggle about boys. Men dance with women. There are endless variations on the voices that Glass could spotlight, and there are infinite physical depths for Barnes to mine. Yet both the choreography and audio tell us the most banal version of the story.
Later, a poet’s voiceover reads a poem written during the last few days of his wife’s battle with leukemia. Bass and Barnes stand on a dining room table set for dinner. They wear ankle-length insulated coats, but are barefoot, and they clutch the coats closed with twisted, rigid hands. They lean toward each other and occasionally stumble a foot off the edge of the table as the poet reads about the acceleration of his wife’s decline. The slow build of both words and movement is gripping. Will the wife become lucid long enough to make some final gesture of love? Will Bass or Barnes fall off the table? Three Acts would benefit immensely from more of the tension developed in this scene. Not only does it put the fun in perspective, it shows off the emotional range of the performers—something that matters a lot more than schtick.
For someone who thinks he’s pioneering a new form, Glass has an admittedly narrow cultural aperture. In 2014, when Three Acts first began its run, and there was a flurry of interest, he told the New Yorker that he rarely watched dance. That same year he came as close to breaking the Internet as a radio host can, tweeting that “Shakespeare sucks,” and “isn’t relatable.” If Three Acts can be considered one of Glass’s major artistic undertakings, meant to further his vision of relatability, then it can only be successful if the audience sees themselves in the performers, a troubling primary premise. That doesn’t bode well for the future of dance or radio. Yet the most affecting section is one about spousal loss at the end of decades of marriage. It was successful, even with a mostly young audience, because it threw out the devices that both Barnes and Glass rely on. The poet simply read his poem, without Glass’s guiding questions. The dancers barely moved, in stark contrast to the rest of the evening. People in the audience cried. They were forced to extend themselves into a life they haven’t lived yet, rather than a cute reflection of the one they know. That’s storytelling.