A Q&A with unconventionally elegant choreographer Monica Bill Barnes, whose company performs at HCC Ybor Jan. 21-22

How did you become interested in choreographing?

"I wanted to perform and at a certain point I realized that there were situations I wanted to be in onstage that no one was choreographing.  I feel very lucky to have dancers who are agreeable to portraying those same kinds of movements onstage."

Your choreography is known for its humor.  Is that something you intended to do from the beginning or did it just develop?

"Often times the humor is not intentional.  Some things we find to be very serious but the audience finds it funny.  Often times it really breaks my heart that there’s a lot of tragedy in the work that I make as far as we perceive it and people laugh at it.  Especially when Anna gets the boxes thrown at her during Mostly Fanfare.  The first time we performed it at Jacob’s Pillow, the audience burst out with laughter, and Charlotte and I were just looking at each other wondering about the audience's reaction because it was supposed to be tragic.  We didn’t understand that in the least."

What inspired the number in Mostly Fanfare that has dancers balancing chairs in their teeth?

"We found some great vaudeville footage of someone balancing a chair on the bridge of her nose.  And I just loved the idea of that.  I think that Mostly Fanfare deals with the idea of what performers do to entertain, as well as what performers do nowadays to make a lifestyle of it.  We tour with our own confetti that we carry on the plane.  There’s still a touch of vaudeville in the lifestyle.  The choreography has to limit the amount of time we can clench our jaws and balance them before they need to come down.  They are a lot lighter than normal chairs.  Don’t try this at home.

In Mostly Fanfare you and the dancers come out with feather plumes on heads and look like some kind of animals, maybe show ponies.  Is this something you intended, or is it left to the imagination?

"I hope ‘left to the imagination.’  I’m always in the work, so I’m not fully aware of how it appears.  All of the work is very physical.  I like the idea of marathons.  My dad was a marathon runner, so I grew up watching him do these incredible physical feats, and I think similar things happen to performers.  That idea of physicality started with my dad."

Are there Haitian influences in your work?

"Not that we are aware.  We have two moves that are African in origin that we use during our James Brown piece.  We do do a lot of borrowing."

I notice that you have phrases that you repeat and you have little tics and nuances in your dances.  Is that conceived of beforehand or does that come out as you’re developing the work?

"It’s a process.  Generating movement is something I do really slowly and painstakingly. There tends to be a lot of detail at the start, so it’s pretty dense movement.  I think the quirks and the tension exists from the very beginning, but as we go through a long process of learning the dance, the movements shift around, and usually the material can’t really exist if it doesn’t move out of that place and move into a specific physical vocabulary.  Most often, the movements are keyed to the music.  We’ll perform a movement on a certain musical note, and the movement gets filled around these certain points.  There’s something about creating emotional content that is interesting to me and oftentimes when we’re learning it, we’ll make adjustments."

You move from a Bach cello piece to James Brown and do it wonderfully.  Can you explain how you make that transition?

"It’s interesting, there’s something about those cello pieces and James Brown -- I couldn’t put it into words why those things feel related to me.  There’s something about the force of them that I wouldn’t be able to articulate beyond instinct."

How do you decide how many dancers to feature in a piece?  Sometimes you have three and sometimes four.

"There’s definitely a parallel between the process and what ends up being the product.  Celia is a filmmaker as well, and from the very beginning of the process she started to develop a short film that we’re going to show sometime down the road.  I think that three is a much lonelier number.  With four, I feel like there are enough of us to take on situations."

Monica Bill Barnes and Company will perform at the Hillsborough Community College Ybor Campus, Mainstage Theater in the Performing Arts Building, Fri., Jan. 21, and Sat., Jan. 22, at 7:30 p.m.  Tickets are $10 at the door.  For more information, e-mail [email protected]

Monica Bill Barnes, creator of Monica Bill Barnes and Company, is an exuberant woman, all smiles and expressions, especially when she's talking about dance.  On this night, she was very articulate and enthusiastic, despite the fact that she had just finished a nearly two hour dance performance.  She is extremely well-toned, the sinews visible when she’s executing a dance move are still present when she’s at rest.  Judging from her show on Thursday night, Monica Bill Barnes and Company are definitely ready to take on the world. This Q & A session was conducted after the  performance.

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