By Marcia B. Siegel
Monica Bill Barnes, a dancer-choreographer, mime, storyteller and soft satirist, has riffed in the past on the pitfalls of dancing, the vanity of performers, the absurdities of adolescence. Now she’s looking at gender displacements and assertions.
Monica Bill Barnes & Company, Happy Hour. Presented by Celebrity Series at District Hall, Boston, MA, through March 16.
The anonymous, high-ceilinged, hard-surfaced space at District Hall in Boston’s Seaport was perfect for Monica Bill Barnes’s return to town. Happy Hour is a cabaret in the guise of an after-office party — with chairs on two sides instead of cocktail tables. The zany Barnes, a dancer-choreographer, mime, storyteller and soft satirist, has riffed in the past on the pitfalls of dancing, the vanity of performers, the absurdities of adolescence. Now she’s looking at gender displacements and assertions.
First, Robert Saenz de Viteri warms up the audience. To get us into the party spirit, he offers free snacks and beer. He elicits audience members’ birthdays and an upcoming marriage. He gives away glow sticks and chewable vitamins, prompts a singalong (“Sweet Caroline” with gestures) as the words pop up on a small screen.
When the good cheer is subsiding and the bucket of cheese balls has gone around the room twice, Barnes and Elisa Clark arrive. Wearing men’s suits and ties, and fedoras over their slicked-back hair, they impersonate a pair of cool but macho dudes. They’ve got the signs down pat. The beady eyed stares, the overwrought facial expressions, the hands-in-pockets strolls, the pelvic presentations, the extra-long Trumpian neckties that point crotchward. They dance side by side to a rock and roll song. A little walking, a little soft shoe, a few ballet moves. The audience claps to accompany them. Their dance routine turns into a locomotive, starting with slow steps, then speeding up, the chugging barely audible because their shoes have rubber soles. At the end of “Love Me Tender,” they goose up the applause until they have to take elaborate bows. When a bunch of roses gets tossed into the space, they compete for it and for the audience’s favor, by throwing the flowers at each other. Judy Garland sings the torchy “Come Rain or Come Shine” in an upbeat tempo, and they jog, trying unsuccessfully to conceal their exhaustion.
They pick a woman out of the audience to take part. She’s taller than both of them and acts calm, not embarrassed. I wonder if she’s a plant. They sit her down and woo her with a long, unsubtle round of pushy seductive moves: earnest looks, smoochy embraces, straddling captures. They serenade her by lip-synching a recorded number. Clark wins the contest and leaves the room with the volunteer. Barnes, alone, dances and confronts audience members with card tricks. Clark and her/his companion return. She holds a huge bouquet. We don’t know what they’ve been up to while they were gone, but it seems to have been something they’re both proud of. Barnes and Clark escort the volunteer back to her seat. They reconcile with a manly embrace and a return to their original side-by-side hands-in-pockets dance.
The sound track supplies lush, romantic classical music, and a soprano sings Dvorák’s “Song to the Moon” from the opera Rusalka. To this the duo starts sprinting along a diagonal across the space. Then they’re back in vaudeville mode again, pleading for the audience’s approval, their smiles more desperate, their rivalry more and more obvious.
As Nat King Cole sings “Smile,” they bring over two chairs and stand on them to restore the crepe paper decorations they’ve torn from the wall in a previous moment of rage. Then, with their own microphones, they sing along with a sound track, “All Out of Love” by Air Supply. Barnes looks triumphant as she yells the song, purposely off key.
They bow again and leave, but the MC returns before the audience can depart. He brings a birthday cake with lighted candles for Jen, the audience member who’s celebrating her 50th birthday. Jen blew out the candles, and everyone was invited to stay for a piece of cake.
Made in 2015, Happy Hour ran for many weeks in New York and has been out intermittently on tour ever since. By bringing it to Boston, Celebrity Series was aiming to expand its stodgy audience demographic, and it succeeded. I figured I was the oldest person in the room. The last time I had an office job was probably 1956, and I haven’t kept in touch with popular music since Twyla Tharp coopted the Beach Boys for her 1972 dance Deuce Coupe. Despite the culture dissonance, I had a fine time.
Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. She has contributed two selections to Dance in America, the latest edition in the Library of America’s “Reader’s Anthology” series.