which is one reason the collaboration with Glass was such a good fit.
From the beginning, Barnes has been intentional about the impact she
wants to make, and tenacious about creating a business model that allows dance to be not just a lifestyle but a living.
After completing her MFA at New York University in 1997, Barnes
started a “company” (her air quotes), which basically meant “making
solos for anyone who would watch.” Her goal was to sustain herself
financially entirely through dance, which she managed to do after only
two years, with “a combo of the most ridiculous work you could imagine.” If she got a teaching gig in Virginia, she’d call schools in a 300-mile
radius to offer master classes and performances. If a school three hours
away accepted, she’d spend her entire fee on gas to get there. In other
words, she hustled.
She danced for other artists, like Guta Hedewig and Allyson Green,
and started making duets and quartets. For a long time, she got asked
“Is the company ever going to get bigger?” as if an increase in size
would indicate an increase in seriousness. “It’s intentionally smaller,”
she says, noting that she has always believed in paying her dancers
fairly. “Partially for finances but also because I think you identify more.
In a smaller group you can see individuals better.”
In recent years, the individual that cannot be missed is Bass, who
started working with Barnes in 2003 and is now her associate artistic
director. “We discovered that our physicality and instinct and impulses
are so similar,” Bass says. They share an uncanny sense of charmingly
awkward swagger. Onstage, they portray characters—overeager hosts,
cocky high-rollers or corporate businessmen out for a good time, as in
their most recent show, Happy Hour, a weekly after-work performance
complete with cocktails, karaoke and a raffle. It’s fun, and funny. Humor,
perhaps more than anything else, is Barnes’ signature. But dance audiences
aren’t generally primed to laugh, so to let them know it’s okay, Barnes
and Bass borrow a trick from comedians like Louis C.K. and Bill Burr.
“Comedians tend to present themselves with a lot of self-deprecation,”
Three Acts one night in a 3,000-seat hall and Happy Hour a few days later
Barnes says. If they do it well and with confidence, it’s a joy to laugh at
them. “You can’t laugh at somebody that you’re worried about,” she
adds, explaining, “We give the audience permission to laugh at us because
beneath it all, they know that we’re fine.” As in comedy, the humor is the
real-time feedback that lets you know you’ve hooked an audience: When
you hear the laughter, Barnes says, “you know they understood.”
Audience enjoyment is the raison d’être of the company. “For me
the purpose of making a show is to connect with an audience,” says
Barnes. “And if the show fails to connect…that’s our fault.” Unlike
some choreographers for whom steps are sacred, with Barnes, the
moves come second. “She privileges the experience over everything,”
observes Robert Saenz de Viteri, who joined the company to help
manage Three Acts and stayed on in a role created for him as creative
producing director. “The choreography is just material.”
Yet that connection takes different shapes when the duo performs
for a small audience in a room that fits 70. The dramatic shift is by design.
“There is a really strategic eye on not being redundant,” says Barnes.
The obvious choice after Three Acts, given its reception and box office
receipts, would have been to capitalize on the concept and launch version
Barnes and her artistic
partner Anna Bass share a
similar awkward charm.