Dance review: This American Life meets dance-theater in a worthy experiment at ADF | Arts

Dance review: This American Life meets dance-theater in a worthy experiment at ADF

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Ira Glass, Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass in Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host - PHOTO BY DAVID BAZEMORE / COURTESY OF ADF
  • photo by David Bazemore / courtesy of ADF
  • Ira Glass, Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass in Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host
Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham
Saturday, July 18


As the lights dim at DPAC, the disembodied voices of radio host Ira Glass and choreographer Monica Bill Barnes ponder how to begin: with an idea or with movement? “Perhaps the idea is movement,” Glass suggests. The lights come back up on a miniature proscenium arch with a tiny red curtain and flashing lights. Barnes and dancer Anna Bass enter through the stage within a stage, beginning a jazzy dance routine to the sound of recorded applause.

Though Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host unfolds on Barnes’ territory, the stage, its three-act narrative structure is familiar to listeners of This American Life. The smartly bespectacled Glass is a masterful host—funny, empathetic and self-effacing. Barnes and Bass are equally excellent as dancers: the frontal choreography is delivered mostly side by side, with intricate musicality and precise technical execution.

But neither engaging narrative nor tight choreography turns out to be the larger point of this work. They are tools with which the collaborators approach deeper themes—notably, the complex relationship between surface and the humanity beneath it—often using themselves as subjects.

Glass recounts how he worked hard to shed the formal cadence of an NPR newscaster in favor of his more personal tone. One long monologue reveals insights into his own marriage. At another point, Barnes and Bass dance together as Bass discusses their relationship in a recorded interview. In such moments, we see, or imagine we see, a human layer beneath a surface of technical mastery.

Barnes and Glass craft a satisfying evening, but they also seek risk, which requires vulnerability. Glass, who is not a trained dancer, comes close to exhibiting that quality when he dances on several occasions. However, those moments miss an opportunity by not continuing long enough to create more than the charming spectacle of “The Dancing Radio Host.” It would have been beautifully revealing to witness more of Glass’ untrained movements.

Dance is a unique medium because it captures elements of human vulnerability that elude language. In the third act, Barnes and Bass move with textured gravity as a recorded Donald Hall reads a heartbreaking poem. Movement and words intertwine to form an experience more emotionally expansive than speech alone could convey. Overall, I enjoyed this cleverly constructed experiment, but if “the idea is movement,” then Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host could have risked more by placing greater emphasis on the moving body’s capacity for getting beneath an impeccable surface. 


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