Radio host Ira Glass had two messages he wanted to convey Saturday night while regaling public-broadcasting fans at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. The first message was for the Federal Communications Commission. The normally genteel Glass repeatedly yelled something loud and clear at government regulators that cannot be said on-air and cannot be reprinted here.
The second message was less explicit, but it was the overarching reason that Glass was in town: to convince a crowd of smart, educated listeners that they should give a (pick-your-expletive) about modern dance. The show was called “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host,” and sharing the stage with Glass were choreographer Monica Bill Barnes and her longtime dancer Anna Bass. The three have been collaborating since 2012, when Barnes worked with writer David Rakoff on a dance he performed at a live taping of Glass’s show, “This American Life.” They stayed in touch and debuted “Three Acts” in Philadelphia last spring, with about one performance in one city scheduled each month in the coming year.
Glass began the night with the sort of aw-shucks pronouncements he’s known for. “Modern dance and radio,” he said, “two forms that no one ever asked to be combined ever.” (This is, for the record, not true: In 2012, choreographer Kyle Abraham brought a wonderful piece called “The Radio Show” to Washington.) But this concept, unless Nina Totenberg once hit the road with Martha Graham back in 1982, is new.
Like the best modern dances, the stories Glass shares on “This American Life” are usually about one thing on the surface but by the end have you thinking about something bigger. Working with Barnes and Bass, he found several stories in his archive that translated to movement. The opening tale featured a dancer named Katie who joined her “Riverdance” castmates in buying what they thought were winning Mega Millions lottery tickets. They went onstage in North Carolina that night and gave the performance of their lives. The audience loved it. The next night, having lost, they performed dejectedly, and the audience loved it.
As Glass recounted the story — with bits of audio — Barnes and Bass executed happy-go-lucky aerobic footwork then toned things down. Glass observed, rightly, that the moral of the story is an ongoing quandary for dancers: What matters more, the product or the performance?
Barnes’s choreography was simple, but that turned out to be because Glass would later join in. He managed a pretty nice turned-out tendu left in second, and has leg nice extensions, though that may just be because he’s tall. His port de bras — the movement of his arms and shoulders — was atrocious. Which is all to say, he was terrific.
Other radio-meets-movement scenarios in the show included a reenactment of a middle-school dance — about the awkwardness of learning to intimately hold another person — and a slow duet depicting the death of a loved one featuring a recorded reading by poet Donald Hall. The former had the audience roaring, the latter in tears. What’s so wonderful about “Three Acts” is how unselfishly Glass managed to show, rather than tell, the relevance of dance in daily lives and how, without words, dancers communicate things that may take him an hour-long episode to say. And lucky them, they do it all without worrying about the FCC.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.