There’s no other way to put it: Barnes bedazzled Reynolds Industries Theater Sunday night at the American Dance Festival. They brought glitz; they brought glam. Batons twirled and confetti fluttered. The dancers gripped chairs in their teeth. If you need your corporeal form recharged, get to their show tonight or Tuesday.
Sounds like a lot of fluff? It wasn’t. The fab costumes, hip-shaking moves and spectacular theatricality added up to one of the most substantial and sincere commentaries I’ve seen on performance and identity.
The program listed three pieces but it was really an evening-length triptych. There were no intermissions between the world-premiere duet Luster, a trio to Nina Simone's music titled mostly fanfare and the full-company quartet Everything is getting better all the time set to a rousing Otis Redding soundtrack.
The tech changes between the pieces were incorporated into the performance and the black-garbed crew interacted with the four company dancers onstage throughout the pieces. These weren’t, however, mere meta-dances or philosophical musings about the fourth wall, a point unambiguously made in the opening minute of the show.
In Luster, atop the opening monologue of Ike and Tina Turner’s cover of “Proud Mary” (“We're gonna take the beginning of this song and do it easy; then we're gonna do the finish rough”), Barnes and Anna Bass carried a puppet-show proscenium down the aisle and clambered onstage. Garbed in down trench coats that just allowed glimpses of lamé beneath at the ankles, Barnes and Bass tried to affix the proscenium to a frame onstage. They needed a third pair of hands, though, so they pulled a man from the audience to hold it in position while they fastened it properly. As the music began to ramp up, he moved his hips to the beat, drawing hoots.
Fourth wall torn down? Check. Performance about performance? Check. Now that that was taken care of, Barnes and Bass could move on.
Through slapstick-infused chair dances and stage dances that brought them out onto the stairs of the aisle again at one point, the women amplified the enthusiasm of Turner’s performance and whipped the crowd into a frenzy. I’ve never heard an ADF audience laugh so freely.
You’ve seen almost all of this choreography before—in ice dances, showgirl and cheerleader routines, parades and circuses, music videos and biopics of musicians, cabarets and glitzy musicals throughout the year over at ADF’s other stage at the Durham Performing Arts Center. The hand jive even made a brief appearance.
But Barnes’ movement is actually an imitation of all of that movement. It’s those lip-synch productions you made to rock songs after you locked your adolescent bedroom door, crooning and belting lyrics into your hairbrush. And the slumber party routines in pajamas on a pullout couch stage that became so elaborate that cranky parents had to shout from upstairs “Don’t make me come down there!” And the headbanging you and your friends did at red lights to freak out the drivers in the car stopped next to you.
As Luster moved through sections of varying intensity keyed to the musical changes, Barnes and Bass helped each other through moments of hesitation and exhaustion, drawing energy from the audience’s reaction to small points of humor, such as a tap dance rendered silly by the basketball-court squeaks of their sneakers.
After running in twin circles for a long time to a morose piano and cello duet, they began pumping their fists to try to get their spirits up. It worked: the crew entered en masse to reward them with bouquets, and the piece ended with a high-energy finale.
Before applause subsided, mostly fanfare began. Christina Robson joined Barnes and Bass onstage, all garbed in white spaghetti strap tops and black skirts, with white pouf feather headdresses like circus horse performers wear. The audience wanted to laugh at the feathers but hesitated because this piece immediately had a different tone.
Nina Simone’s cover of the desperate ballad “For All We Know” (can anyone sustain a song at a slower pace than Simone?) cast a half-pall on the room. The trio’s balletic movements were restrained. The empty stage was twilit. In unison, they moved diagonally from a back corner to the opposite front corner and returned, seemingly unaware of the audience. They all looked to the rear wings and held their arms out as if to present the entrance of a fourth dancer. But no one entered.
It was a lonely moment, a possible retraction of the lust and luster of Luster. Barnes and her dancers were suddenly exposed to the power of the audience’s desire for the show. I have to admit to feeling a pang of guilt in my seat. I saw not three dancers, but three women, facing the expectations of hundreds of strangers in the gaping dark.
Ideally, singing into our hairbrushes, we want to be stars but we also still want to be us. We want to be us, as stars. Ecstatically loved by the audience, but genuine. Resolving that is the trick, isn’t it? That’s why we have tabloid newspapers and the Betty Ford Clinic.
The fact is, every performance is forced. It’s artificial. The emotional facial expressions that Barnes showed last night will be repeated tonight and Tuesday regardless of how she actually feels. That the show must go on necessitates this pretending. Sometimes that’s akin to a lie for the performer who allows the artifice to erode her real self, the facial expression to override the feeling. But Barnes and her dancers show their genuine selves through her uninhibited imitative choreography, as well as in those moments when their endurance is tested by it and they turn to each other for support. This sincere artifice, Barnes proposes, is the only way for the performer to not be consumed by her performance. It’s mostly fanfare, after all.
The bios of the dancers on the company website are all careful to note that these women performed shows in their families’ living rooms and garages when they were kids. This kind of imitative play that children do doesn’t erase their identities; it adds to them. And this show was that same play show from their youth, just without the Barnes family station wagon parked on the Reynolds stage.
As if to hearken back to that garage, mostly fanfare moved into a comical middle section as boxes were tossed in from the wings for Bass to break out of a solo to catch and place. Eventually the boxes piled up. Then all three dancers brought out chairs and bit down on the backs of them to hold them dramatically over their heads. It was a triumphant moment, tempered quickly by a repetition of the gesture of presentation that again summoned no entrance. Two dancers exited and the third sat dejectedly on a box at the lip of the stage.
Carotenuto’s action was a foil to the braggadocio of Otis Redding’s medley of “These Arms of Mine” and “I Can’t Turn You Loose.” By the time the second song began, all four dancers were onstage in suits and ties, finally getting into the groove together. So much of Redding’s appeal is his ability to rev up an audience—live recordings were used. Barnes matched fist-pumps and balletic marching to Redding’s affecting bluster.
Everything is getting better all the time built to an over-the-top finale befitting a 50-yard line, involving batons and the most tinsel you’ll ever see in one place, summoning level after level of energy from Redding’s interminable performance of “Try a Little Tenderness.” It was ridiculous, actually, but it was what we wanted. Barnes and Company were just giving us what we wanted, and we took it and shouted for more.
That pang of guilt I felt earlier wasn’t there anymore by the spectacular finish. I knew that Barnes and her dancers were giving us this performance, not their selves. They weren’t subsumed by the fervor of their feedback loop with the audience. It was a terrific, terrific night of work.
Tonight, and on Tuesday night, they’ll turn in another one.