NEW YORK - The sound of laughter echoes in the large uptown studio where choreographer Monica Bill Barnes is rehearsing “Everything Is Getting Better All the Time.’’ The piece is part of a program Barnes’s company is bringing to the Institute of Contemporary Art Friday and Saturday, so she and her dancers - Anna Bass, Giulia Carotenuto, and Christina Robson - have placed their boots and shoes around the perimeter to mark off the size of the ICA stage. Unintentionally, they’ve made it look like the setting for a garage sale, which cracks them up. Regaining their composure, the four women jog across the room on the diagonal, rolling their hands in circles, looking like Little Leaguers heading out to the field.
Over the speakers, Otis Redding’s voice launches into the deliciously soulful “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,’’ and the quartet’s movements take on a sweeping fluidity. When the song comes to its end, two dancers dramatically slide to the floor while the others stand, smiling and spreading their arms wide, like a rock band at the end of a concert. Before moving to another song, Barnes, a small, pretty woman with long, dark hair, notebook in hand, calls them into a circle, and offers some suggestions: One dancer’s arms need simplifying; another needs to watch her spacing.
Even though it’s New Year’s Day, they rehearse another hour and a half, working on sections set to songs by Redding and Nina Simone. Everyone except Barnes looks tired, not only from the demanding physicality of the work but also from having partied a little too hard the night before. Barnes, who is 38 and has been married to actor David Wilson Barnes for 14 years, lives a quieter life than her dancers.
She changes into street clothes, thanks them profusely, and, perched on a chair in the lounge outside the studio, explains what she’s trying to do as a choreographer. “My work is all about the experience of performance,’’ she says. “It’s about how we feel, what we are risking, what we love and hate about it, and what it means to be exposing so much of ourselves.’’
Ella Baff, artistic and executive director of Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, likes Barnes so much that she has invited her to the festival twice. “Monica’s clever about ambiguity,’’ she says. “She draws the audience in by playing the borders of emotions. She hits the funny bone, then turns things poignant and maybe follows up with an extroverted burst.’’
Barnes, whose program at the ICA will also include the pieces “Suddenly Summer Somewhere’’ and “Mostly Fanfare,’’ chooses recordings of live performances for her works, and singers who relish performing. “By hearing their audiences react and applaud,’’ she says, “my audience understands their role in watching my work. I want them to be aware of their part in my performance.’’ The songs represent both the dark and light side of being a performer.
Bass, for example, who has danced with Barnes for nine years, performs a solo to Simone’s “Let It Be Me,’’ in which big boxes are hurled at her from the wings, interrupting her. She finally is able to balance nine of them in a pyramid, never acknowledging the difficulties she has encountered. After seeing the piece, an audience member once told Barnes that it reminded her of the challenges women confront when they have to manage work, family, and marriage. “I hadn’t even thought of that,’’ Barnes says. “I think of it more in terms of what performers endure, like the rigors of travel, but I loved that she related personally to the work.’’
This has been Barnes’s objective from the start. When she arrived in New York from her hometown of Berkeley, Calif., after earning a degree in philosophy and theater from the University of California, San Diego, she performed solos and duets, all of them theatrical. “I always knew I wanted to dance,’’ she says. “I loved performing from the time I was 6, when the family came to New York and I saw ‘Chorus Line.’ But my parents were wise and, besides giving me dancing lessons, made sure I got a good, well-rounded education. I played volleyball and was on the debating team.’’
In 1995, unable to find a company she wanted to join, Barnes formed her own troupe. Reviewers rave about her choreography’s wit, charm, and touchingly human qualities.
“I want the audience to empathize and laugh along with us,’’ she says. “I want them to have a vested interest in what’s happening, not feel we’re fabulous dancers doing something that is way beyond them. Even though I choreograph difficult and complex movement, I want us to be approachable, more like them than like trained dancers. I loved it when an audience member told me that when he watched us perform, he felt like it was him dancing around in his bedroom.’’
To keep her dancers and herself present and on their toes, Barnes is fond of choreographing moments that interrupt the flow of movement. Surprise is a major element in her work, with no performance exactly the same. Part of that desire for naturalness even extends to what she wants in costumes. She asks designer Kelly Hanson to create costumes that look like real clothes, such as three-piece suits that intentionally aren’t well-tailored. “They look like businessmen’s suits,’’ she says, “but not very high-class businessmen’s suits. My tie is red; Anna’s is gold. We’re not trying to look like men, but if we were guys, we’d dress like this, slightly sloppy.’’
Before beginning a piece, Barnes listens to a lot of music, trying to figure out which artists best match her ideas. She started “Everything Is Getting Better All the Time’’ with Tina Turner songs, but when she decided to use Nina Simone, she thought Redding would make a better contrast with her. He represents the more upbeat side of performing, and, in a sense, a brighter view of life than Simone.
“You can feel the effort in her voice,’’ Barnes says, “and that’s so powerful.’’