Volume 20, Number 27 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | November 16 - 22, 2007

Monica Bill Barnes reinterprets Las Vegas classics


Karaoke offers average people the opportunity to do something extraordinary. There are no restrictions — anyone can do it, and it is one of few adult fantasy outlets broadly embraced by civil society. And as anyone who’s ever partaken knows, it’s more about having fun than about singing really well.

In “Suddenly Summer Somewhere,” at St. Mark’s church last week, choreographer Monica Bill Barnes employs karaoke actually and ideologically in her exploration of two women who seem ruled by the music of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and other ’60s Rat Pack crooners. Hilarious and sad, her 50-minute duet with Anna Bass offers a feminist counterpoint to the honey-coated schmaltz conveyed by the songs. But it’s more than just a rereading of the texts; as always with Barnes, comedy and tragedy interweave in her dance like human sine and cosine waves, with a frill of pathos all around the edges.

Prior to the performance, audience members were welcome to participate by singing karaoke-style at one of two microphones set up at the front of the stage. Lyrics were displayed on the back wall of the space throughout the entire piece, with the words changing brightness to guide the singer. Eventually, Barnes and Bass enter wearing “old lady” or “vintage” wool coats, and unleash an intentionally dreadful rendition of “You Make Me Feel So Young.”

After a blackout, Carol Mullins’ lighting illuminates the two women now standing on top of a small square, set dining room table at the back of the theater, a clock hovering over them, suspended from a craggy tree branch. Physically, the context and environment designed by Kelly Hanson, suggests Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” a cultural product of the same time period as the music. Barnes clutches her wrist as if holding a purse, or a useless, injured appendage. Bass stands with arms folded. In silence, the duo slowly, carefully rock back and forth in an amalgamated mass, shuffling across the tabletop, sending cups and plates rolling to the chairs and floor. It’s a careless rather than carefree expression, about confinement, not liberation or release.

Barnes steps down from the table to the floor and rolls onto her stomach, head up, mouth agape in a silent scream, with one arm stretched back behind her head and one leg bent at the knee in an engrossing grotesque expression that repeats and resurfaces in a later duet. The Butoh-like appearance invokes the nuclear fears of the Cold War.

The significant stillness in this piece, in fact, allows the performers to show off their range of expressive skills — displaying sadness, defiance, vulnerability, fake cheerfulness, hopelessness, trust, and optimism — using only body language and face. The dancing shows off a similar breadth, with different sections offering different revelations. One phrase begins with slow feet movements that then speed up, adding small turns to the mix, with facial punctuations. To “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You,” the pair behaves like boxers, tough and agile, until the movement seems to take at least partial control over them. They foxtrot to “I Only Have Eyes For You,” and get stuck in happy face mode. Then to Dino’s somewhat misogynistic but rocking “I Love Vegas,” a reworked version of Cole Porter’s standard, “I Love Paris,” these deadpan Lucy and Ethel stand-ins locomote with kicks, spins, sweeping arms, and even jazz hands.

Toward the end, the choreographer slips her balled up form slowly into Bass’ arms, who supports her companion’s weight against her own upright body. She holds Barnes low to the ground, but with a look of righteous dignity. Commiserating comrades in reality — back in the space up on the tabletop — in their karaoke fantasy, played out on the floor of the theater, women rule; each friend is the other’s greatest fan.

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