Review: Monica Bill Barnes at Jacob’s Pillow
Photos by Kristi Pitsch
Pillow gala attendees uproariously laughed during a preview of new work by Monica Bill Barnes & Company that was co-commissioned by the Pillow and created in part during a Creative Development Residency here. In its engagement at the Pillow this week, the company presents three humorous pieces spooled out with a deliberately limited movement vocabulary; the dancers trot, hunch their shoulders, windmill their arms, spin and turn, shimmy their hips, hold their hands in loosely clenched fists or scratch at the air, stride purposefully, stare out at the audience – either blankly, with sad-sack, slack-jawed solicitations of sympathy, or with clownishly over-exaggerated seductive sideways glances – and get down on the floor on all fours and shudder like a cat trying to rid itself of a hairball. In all three pieces, the dancers (four women, including Barnes) wear unfashionable, A-line, knee-length skirts. And in all three dances it seems as if an effort was made to expunge the work of that archetypically expected quality of dance: grace.
Less limited are the tasks the dancers take on, such as balancing chairs with their teeth; catching cumbersome cardboard boxes tossed out from the wings in the midst of what’s supposed to be a bravura solo; or pulling an audience member out of his or her seat and convincing him or her to do a bit of a slow dance and some of that hip shimmying on stage. In the first piece, Mostly Fanfare, three dancers emerge in Vegas-style white-feathered headdresses, which serve as a sharp contrast to their glamourless plain white chemise tops and those knee-length skirts along with anti-showgirl-like choreography. It plays out intentionally soullessly, and woefully, to a soundtrack of four soulful songs performed by Nina Simone. This piece segued nearly seamlessly into a solo by Barnes, Here We Are, which featured more of the same choreography but none of the physical impediments.
The final work on the program, Another Parade (the Pillow co-comissioned) intersperses passages by J.S. Bach with songs by James Brown and vintage pop. For this number the dancers are dressed like everyone’s image of the geekiest of librarians, in frumpy skirts and itchy-looking cowl-neck sweaters. During Brown’s Get up (I feel like being a Sex Machine), first two, then eventually all four dancers seem to be trying out society’s expectations of sexy behavior – repeatedly lifting their sweaters to flash flat stomachs and bits of bras, or stretching the sweaters’ necks of to reveal a bare shoulder – and alternately air boxing, with rhythmic jabs, undercuts, and the universal sign of triumph – fists raised overhead. These movements recur throughout the piece in various configurations until the end, when multicolored confetti falls on the dancers and those they have plucked from the audience, arms held high in that triumphant pose.
At Jacob’s Pillow’s Doris Duke Theatre through Sunday, July 31