Dallas — Anna Bass was attracted to dance “because there’s no talking.” So Ira Glass asked her to talk, of course, posing those This American Life questions that probe deeply, but non-confrontationally, with an open casualness. Snippets of that recorded conversation unfurled as Bass danced with her creative partner of 12 years, Monica Bill Barnes. We learned Bass’ thoughts on compatibility and conflict, why she first wanted to dance and what keeps her going. The piece, which anchored act one was brilliance, a perfectly balanced blend of movement and words to form a true insight into a dancer’s life.
Other moments of 3 Acts, 2 Dancers, 1 Radio Host on Saturday night at the Winspear Opera House reached that apex. In act two about the many forms of love, we listened to part of a 1998 This American Life on poet Donald Hall. He read from works about his wife Jane Kenyon, accompanying her through the hope of treatment for leukemia, the crush of its failure, and her slow release into death. His words, tender yet unflinching, filled the darkened set. The only light was on two dancers atop a table as they entwined and embraced, supporting each other until after much hesitation one departed the table and slipped into the shadows.
In a centerpiece of act three, Glass spoke with great emotion about working with David Rakoff, one of This American Life’s most popular and prolific performers with the show from its inception until he passed from cancer at age 47. Rakoff spoke of his creative process as being like a “hollow pipe, it flows through you.” As dancers performed about the dimmed stage, Glass illuminated them with brief flashes of a hand-held light, emphasizing the seized moments that form the peak times of our lives. It was made deeper knowing that Monica Bill Barnes choreographed Rakoff’s last dance, a solo for the May 2012 live show of This American Life, a few months before he died.
Attendees were treated to the 2006 tale of a 70+ member Riverdance touring company that pooled their money and played the lottery. The troupe infused their winning chances with the power of positive thinking and enforced obedience with vigor, only to crumble when they lose. It was classic This American Life with snowballing mania and inevitable doom punctuated with serious belly laughs. However, Glass expanded the part about how dancers in a successful production must repeat their performance precisely night after night, as the two dancers repeated a sequence of precise choreography with unfailing smiles. His new narration revealed the nuances of achieving in your creative passion, only for it become just a job.
3 Acts, 2 Dancers, 1 Radio Host, part of AT&T Performing Arts Center’s #thinkspeak summer speaker series, featured many other segments: dances to Dean Martin’s “I Love Vegas” and James Brown’s “Sex Machine,” a funny piece on applying focus group methods to marital relations, the agonies of the middle-school dance complete with audience volunteers, a teen website with famous male columnists, even voicemail from Glass’ mom. It was wrapped in the comedic vaudeville and clowning, bubbles and batons, that Monica Bill Barnes & Co. is known for, and laced with their love of minor spectacle like confetti cannons and balancing chairs in their teeth, often decked out in slinky sequin gowns with sneakers.
Glass acknowledged that the audience was there because of This American Life and their trust: “We like Glass, we like KERA, maybe we’ll like dance.” So the evening featured plenty of the public radio program that pulls in over 2.2 million listeners. Glass joked about the limited career life of a dancer (“A dream with an expiration date”) compared to public radio personalities, who continue even after death à la Car Talk. He danced a few soft-shoe numbers with Monica Bill Barnes & Co. to the immense delight of the crowd, milking the metaphor of pushing your boundaries for all its worth.