In her white top and plain black skirt, the dancer could be any office drone. But with that towering crown of feathers on her head — fluffy, cascading, Ziegfeld Follies showgirl feathers — now, here’s a girl with a rich inner life.
The dancer is Anna Bass, a longtime member of Monica Bill Barnes & Company, which brought its smart, kooky humor and compassion to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Wednesday night. This was one of the funniest evenings of dance I’ve ever seen, and one of the most affecting.
In “mostly fanfare,” one of the three works on the program, Nina Simone sings the dreamy, wistful song “Let It Be Me” as Bass, wearing those aspirational feathers, points her bare foot, steps onto it and tosses her head back like she’s a Rolls-Royce hood ornament. The music twinkles like mist, and Bass looks so free she’s practically flying; she lifts her breastbone, spreads her arms like wings in the ecstasy of this moment — and bam! A cardboard box hits her square in the chest.
Life is like that. You get spinach stuck in your teeth, toilet paper trails from your shoe, the hem of your dress finds its way into your underwear (in the back, where you can’t tell until someone feels sorry enough for you to point it out). In these daily indignations, Barnes finds creative material. She’s the Tina Fey of dance.
Her heroines — and they are heroic, these hapless characters who trudge on no matter the banana peels — draw strength from one another. Female fellowship is a source of inspiration for Barnes. Bass isn’t left alone to deal with the boxes that fly at her from the wings. She’s joined by Barnes and Christina Robson; soon, the three women are balancing wooden chairs in their teeth. They have turned themselves into cubist sculpture. And a gleeful vaudeville trio. (Pity the misfit who has no girlfriends.)
In “Everything is getting better all the time,” Giulia Carotenuto joins the threesome; they’re all wearing suits and ties. Otis Redding is on the playlist. They swivel through some Motown moves, throw in a little air guitar and lots of hand claps — always with tight, crisp Bob Fosse timing. Barnes is not only funny, she has a keen eye for the telling gesture. Their moves may be manly, but this is a sweet group, bucking one another up in romantic overtures to invisible love objects, doing the chair-in-the-teeth trick again, stripping down to undershirts and shorts for a self-mocking, razzle-dazzle, baton-twirling finale.
Anything for applause, right? That’s the dancer’s life, and that not-so-glamorous, exhausting, addictive existence is the third and richest vein of material for Barnes.
She pulls back the curtain on the drudgery of performance, offering a new view on the art of being an artist. “Luster,” the most poetic piece, is a rumination on what it takes to put on a show: the lugging, the sweeping, the sitting around. The cycle of pack-drive-unpack-dance is distilled into a lyrical track workout, with Bass and Barnes literally running in circles.
You don’t feel sorry for Barnes, though. Her work, the comedy and the existential pain is exceptionally clear, like fine short-story writing. Near the end of “Luster,” she and Bass strike a big ta-da pose, one arm raised as if they’ve just belted out a high C. As they stand there, motionless for many minutes, listening to Judy Garland’s aching scotch-on-the-rocks voice (a perfect musical choice), their expressions shift from triumph to uncertainty and, finally, to something dark — a resigned, uncomfortable perception. The luster of the big finale has disappeared, and the two women show us this hard truth without moving a muscle.
In that moment, it is clear: All the effort, their whole performing life, is ephemeral. In the end, all they have — and all we have — to hang on to is an inner life. May it be a rich one.
Monica Bill Barnes & Company performs Thursday night at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.