On one of the hottest days in L.A. history, I had the pleasure of interviewing two refreshing performer-creators, Monica Bill Barnes (choreographer/dancer/founder) sorceress of irony in movement and character, and Robbie Saenz de Viteri (writer/co-creator/performer) mystifying storyteller and structural maven. After a seven-year absence, this engagement marks the celebrated New York based Monica Bill Barnes & Company’s, re-introduction to Southern California/Los Angeles. Their thought-provoking frolic, the The Running Show, happens Thursday, September 29, 2022, 7 PM, at Bovard Auditorium on the USC campus, in conjunction with USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
This performance provides a humorous melding of dance and theater. It spotlights dancers as sports heroes propelled by an inner force that keeps them moving against all odds.
The trailblazers, Barnes and Saenz de Viteri in spite of being from different artistic disciplines, managed to discover each other some 10 years ago. Their work inspires whimsy and pithy new theater by “bringing dance where it doesn’t belong.”
Joanne: Welcome Monica and Robbie! I’m going to begin with a very basic question, Monica “Bill” Barnes, what’s in this name?
Monica: I know It’s a funny name. Bill is my grandfather’s name. I loved him. Growing up in Berkeley, California in the early seventies, my parents let me choose my middle name. It was a child-led idea and I got really lucky. I came up with two options for myself; either Grandpa-Bill’s name, or I also considered Snow White. Luckily for me, I went with Bill.
Joanne: So charming! To begin, I’m curious, when either of you just started out, did you ever think that what you do now was in your future?
Robbie: Well, I certainly never even for a second imagined myself having a place in the dance world. That’s not my background at all, I just took one dance class growing up.
But it’s funny, I found this time-capsule that I made when I was in eighth grade in 1996, and in reading that narrative I realized so many pieces are my life now. I was imagining that I would live in New York; that I would be doing theater in some way; and I was imagining a life where I spent all my time with a close friend and I was writing and we were making shows together. It’s so funny that that part of it has come true, but it’s the dance part of it that surprises me. I don’t know, it’s like your life is full of intention and accidents, and the dance part is such a funny accident.
Monica: Yes, it’s interesting. I have two responses to that question. I feel like as a young dancer, all I really wanted to do was perform, and hoped somehow I would have the chance to do that. This is probably the real reason why I created a dance company, to have a way to perform. But after making in a slightly more traditional model, I realized that I really wanted to create pieces that had a different kind of conversation with the audience. I feel like working with Robbie allows me to be a performer in such a untraditional unique way and it opened up exciting new avenues as a choreographer that feel so thrilling to me.
Joanne: I’m interested in hearing more. Monica, you were from Berkeley…and Robbie?
Robbie: I grew up in New Jersey. I went to college for theater, studied writing and directing plays, and then moved to New York shortly after that, and just wanted to write and direct my own work. I worked for a lot of people along the way, because, of course, I was twenty-two years old when I moved to New York… and no one wanted to see the work of a twenty two-year-old …and they shouldn’t. So I worked for other people that I really loved and learned so much from, Anna Deavere Smith, Ira Glass and Stew, who wrote this beautiful musical “Passing Strangers” that I got to work on. I was in The Nature Theater of Oklahoma (Obie Awards) for a long time. I had such diverse experience and feel most at home in an alternative theater world.
Joanne: And Monica, a bit more about your beginnings.
Monica: I’m originally from Berkeley. But I moved to New York as soon as I could. I wanted to live in New York as soon as I realized it existed.
As for dance, I started the way of most young dancers, at a local dance studio. Katie’s Dance Studio was five minutes from my house. It’s significant to me now that Katie was a former Las Vegas Showgirl and we were doing real numbers, with feather headdresses and sequined costumes. And I loved it! I took my first class, I came home, and announced that I found my identity. I was going to be a dancer. I fell in love with the art form and found so much confidence and clarity in being a dancer.
My local public high school, El Cerrito High, also had this incredible dance program lead by Jacqueline Burgess so I was able to dance throughout high school. Then afterwards, I went to New York and studied at The Alvin Ailey School. Such a privilege and such an important moment. The Ailey Company had come to Berkley’s Zellerbach Theatre every year. Seeing them all of my young life, I thought that’s what I want …I want to join the Ailey company. But when I was actually there training all summer I realized… No! I actually don’t. I had such a useful realization at eighteen that I just wasn’t that kind of a dancer. My technique just wasn’t good enough. I’m so grateful because I feel like I really saw myself in a very realistic way as a young dancer.
Joanne: It’s so important in one’s growth. Of course, that just makes me curious how you and Robbie met and started working together, having been from opposite coasts and different disciplines.
Robbie: Yeah, it was interesting…in my theater background I’ve really been involved in making shows and working with companies that used found text, like interviews or phone calls and then created shows that mixed fiction and nonfiction.
When I first saw Monica perform with a friend of mine, I was sitting in the very back row of the theater. There were enormous acts on stage. And then, at some point in the middle of the show, Monica came out with another dancer, Anna, her collaborator for many years. They were wearing these turtleneck sweaters and danced to this James Brown song. I don’t even know that I would call it a dance. They just sort of like had this confrontational relationship to the audience, where they enticed them, and then punished them for being interested in them. And it was hilarious! They were very tiny because they were so far away…but I could see myself in what they were doing.
I felt like Monica was dealing with character and comedy and personality through movement in a way that I really saw myself.
Coming to see our work now is not like seeing a dance concert where there’s one piece then another with a different song… and then another. We really come up with how something begins, and where you are in the middle, and where the end is. We always ask, Why would someone keep watching this? And, How do we get them to keep watching it? There are so many ways to make beautiful dance that doesn’t ask those kinds of questions, but we do.
So I had a producer friend who told me that Monica was making a show with Ira Glass (This American Life). They said to get in touch with her to see if that’s something that would make sense. And it’s so funny, ten years later it still seems to make sense.
Monica: Yes, we met through mutual friends when we were working with Ira Glass in a show that our company created and collaborated on. We hired Robbie sort of talking about everything, the way you do when you’re on tour. I had been struggling for about a year to rewrite our company mission statement. I asked Robbie if he would take a look at what I wrote. It feels now like a bold question since we were just starting to work together. I don’t know if it was right, but I passed my computer to him, and he came up with the motto that I feel has defined the company moving forward…“bringing dance where it doesn’t belong.”
There was something in that early conversation. We have such different skill set … so it was hard to understand how we would work together. Early on, we had several wonderfully awkward conversations, where I was just trying to say, do you want to … try and make a show together? But didn’t quite know how to say it.
Robbie: Yeah. And then we made the show Happy Hour. We sort of…
Monica: … stumbled into it. I don’t know, and we’ve been working together ever since.
Robbie: I think you get into this kind of work because you want to be changed by how somebody responds to you. That iterative process drew us together. It’s so huge. I’m always amazed that more people don’t do it. I think it’s such a great way to work. I really believe in it.
Joanne: So interesting, and practical. This brings up your process when you’re developing a piece.
Robbie: Well…Anytime we sit down to make a show my first question is, “Why should we do a show at all?” And “Why should anyone see a show like this?” Somehow the piece has to deal with those questions. As soon as you walk into the theater, you have to be defining the experience of why you would walk into that theater, which feels like, honestly, very relevant to me.
Monica: Yes, I think we’ve really found the way to work with each other … and with The Running Show we incorporate the local community of dancers into that process in each city. I can’t imagine we could ever make another show just like this one. I think what’s actually been so clear to us is that we want to keep reinventing the way we work, even though I think all of our shows have a very similar hear with the hope to be fun and relatable.
Robbie: In this industry, I think we all grappled with how hard it was to be doing things. And now, “It’s back!”…and we’re performing again. But for people buying tickets… I think there is some hesitancy like why would you want to leave your house? Still, I think it’s really an exciting moment.
Monica: It’s funny, I think also with The Running Show, this gives us an ideal way to meet and work with a group of strangers. We will meet everyone on Saturday … and then by Thursday, we will be on stage performing our hearts out together.
Joanne: Yes, so exciting to experience the final work put together! Well, we could go on with so many questions about your experience and your work. But the next step is to actually see your live performance. We’re looking forward to the The Running Show on September 29 at 7:00PM.
Thank you so much Monica and Robbie for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak to me about your partnership and process at the Monica Bill Barnes & Company.
To watch the trailer for The Running Show, click HERE.
To watch the trailer for Three Acts, Two Dancers One Radio Host (a collaboration with Ira Glass), please click HERE.
WHAT: Monica Bill Barnes & Company’s The Running Show
WHERE: USC’s Bovard Auditorium, 3551 Trousdale Pkwy, Los Angeles, CA 90089
WHEN: Thursday, September 29 at 7:00PM
TICKETS/INFORMATION: Admission is free but tickets are required. To get tickets, please click HERE.
For more information call 213-740-0483
To learn more about Monica Bill Barnes & Company, please visit their website.
Written by Joanne DiVito for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured photo: Monica Bill Barnes & Co. in The Running Show – Monica Bill Barnes (center), Robbie Saenz de Viteri (right) – Photo by Paula Lobo
[ed note: this article was edited to update the title and add “USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance” to the first paragraph on Sept. 28, 2022]