Breaking Into the Off-Broadway Show Biz

Photo Source: Mallory Lynn

Contemporary dance company Monica Bill Barnes & Company enjoys bringing dance where it doesn’t belong while finding the humor in everyday triumphs and failures. Artistic director and choreographer-performer Monica Bill Barnes, associate artistic director and performer Anna Bass, and creative producing director Robert Saenz de Viteri chat about overcoming challenges and their upcoming Off-Broadway show.

This September, you will be premiering “One Night Only (running as long as we can)” at WP Theater. What inspired you to create an Off-Broadway show?
Monica Bill Barnes: We’re always looking for the ability to perform, and have been envious of the theater world as performers all of our lives. As dancers, we have fewer opportunities to get onstage, so I think some of it was... Anna Bass: ...selfish!

Robert Saenz de Viteri
: In addition to the selfishness of it, the people that Anna and Monica play onstage, and where they’re comfortable as performers, are so character-driven. I think audiences often feel like there is a narrative they’re watching or that there is a real personal thing that they’re watching in a way that I don’t know that most dance is invested in, and it feels like those sort of tools and skills that they have as performers are so right in the theater world

MBB: The two members of the company that aren’t present in this interview are Jane Cox, our lighting designer, and Kelly Hansen, our set and costume designer, and for years they’ve been creating designs that can pack into a suitcase or can be loaded into a theater in 45 minutes. Or in a studio that we built into an office with no real ability to design. I’ve been working with Jane and Kelly for almost 20 years; Jane is an accomplished lighting designer who is nominated for a Tony again this year, and Kelly is an amazing designer who works on “The Tonight Show.” I think we haven’t really been able to allow them to go to town, and hopefully the ability to actually be in an Off-Broadway theater affords us a new conversation amongst ourselves.

RS: There are five company members. Three out of five have a theater background and two out of five have a theater and dance background.

What were some of the challenges you encountered along the way and how did you overcome them?
MBB: So much of what we’re actually making shows about is tragedy. Moments of failure and moments of awkwardness, but somehow we really want those moments and those situations to be funny. One struggle that we’re constantly coming up with is where the humor is in each new show, and, ultimately, where is the emotion and where is the meaning and how are we contextualizing it? For me, so often it feels like the choreography is a base foundation for Anna and Robbie and I to throw [together]context and meaning, situation and performance, and somehow the choreography just houses an opportunity to create meaning.

READ: How to Become a Dancer

What does a performer who’s looking to get involved in the Off-Broadway scene need to do or know?
MBB: I don’t understand how you can get better as a performer without constant, constant practice. It becomes easy to lose confidence or lose your identity as a performer, especially as dancers. The best calling card you have as a performer is to be performing, and [that’s] the opportunity for people to see you and hopefully like you and cast you.

Where are some places dancers can go to meet other dancers to collaborate with as you five do?
MBB: I really think that summer festivals are great places, and just going to see other people’s work is huge. Also, going to see other people’s work where they feel like they’re at the same level as you. If you move to New York and you see the [Alvin] Ailey Company, you’re probably seeing dancers who have been in New York for 10 years. You can be inspired by that, but if you really want to meet somebody who you can make a duet with, you may want to go to some of the smaller venues where people are self-producing and see someone who is at a similar moment in their life and in their career as you. Anna and I have been working together for 15 years, and our interest in working together had so much to do with just being excited about working together. I wasn’t able to offer anything really big and exciting in terms of venues or professional opportunities, but we were so excited by being able to dance together. If I were to be 20 and moving to New York again, I would be looking for someone who I wanted to have that 20-year conversation with, like I have with Anna and Robbie.

How about tips for emerging choreographers in New York?
MBB: I think that making work is the only way to understand the kind of choreographer you are. The choreographers I love are ones who have really distinct voices that feel unique, and I think you only develop your own voice with a ton of practice. The first 10 years that I was creating work, I was really just in a process of trying to understand what kind of work I make. The next 10 years was me trying to get a little bit better than that. With anything in the realm of creating, anything is a song, a dance, a show; the only way to understand it is to do it. I don’t think you can study it or read about it. All of those things are great, but you have to just do it, and do it badly! What’s so great about the early part of anyone’s career is that no one is paying attention and it’s just your friends coming—if they keep coming.