Barnes Stresses Individuality, Expression in Workshops

Vida Weisblum

Monica Bill Barnes, contemporary dancer, choreographer and performer extraordinaire, prides herself on quirkiness and fun — attributes which she eagerly shared with the Oberlin community last Saturday. She joined student dancers and non-dancers for two captivating workshops, each a two hour-long session in Warner Main. One might expect a dance workshop with one of New York’s most celebrated contemporary dance figures to be intimidating, even rigid; Barnes, however, maintained a refreshingly comfortable environment and came prepared with an exciting agenda. The workshop attracted participants from Oberlin College and nearby universities, plus two international attendees. Barnes, whose poise resembled that of Audrey Hepburn, was welcoming to all, and she was eager to learn a little about each of the participants before delving into physical movement.

Rather than immediately jumping into a traditional group dance warmup, Barnes began the workshops with an exercise one might call theatrical. She divided the group in half and asked both sides to stand in horizontal lines facing each other. She then gave one line a sequence of situations to act out while the other line watched. Students progressed from feeling awkward and not knowing anyone, to wishing it were a dance party and starting to move around to the music, to beginning to actually dance, then going all out and dancing wildly and, finally, realizing they are at a funeral. Two sequences through, the lines switched roles. The unusual opening doubtless felt disconnected from the classic image of dance; however, this warm up represents a quintessential part of Barnes’s character.

As a choreographer, Barnes is primarily drawn to the eccentricities of dancers, not just their technical abilities. With her company, Monica Bill Barnes and Company, Barnes has entertained many different styles of performance along with numerous audiences in 40 cities throughout the country. MBB & Co. has performed seasons at New York City’s Joyce Theatre, been commissioned by dance festivals nationwide and received support from The National Endowment for the Arts, among other accomplishments. The company has also enjoyed special appearances at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, the Mayor’s Awards for Arts and Culture at New York City Center, Carnegie Hall and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Barnes’s work continues to be influenced by her dancers and emphasizes originality. To do so, Barnes implements humor as a crucial element of her work; she tries to garner at least one giggle per performance. If the audience laughs at her choreography, even if all else fails, she can feel confident that viewers are engaged in what is being presented on stage. Barnes noted during the workshop that humor, while on the surface a happy concept, often stems from a tragic idea. By implementing humor, Barnes makes the meaning of her dances accessible. Humor is also based in intent, which Barnes discussed extensively in the workshops. She explained that intent helps to draw a piece away from melodrama and an overbearing tone or story, allowing an audience to decide what meaning they want to assign to a movement and even the piece as a whole.

This intent brings presence to the dancers and allows their individuality to be unmasked — a concept that Barnes stressed throughout the workshop exercises. While doing a more traditional Limón-esque suspension routine, instead of instructing dancers on how to prevent falling on difficult moves, she told them to embrace the falls and make them their own. This particular interest in individuality was apparent throughout the workshop. Her approachable style and humor allowed students to truly open up and embrace their personal quirks — a freedom the dancers will not soon forget.