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Monday, April 28, 2014

Ira Glass Paired Storytelling and Modern Dance for ‘One Radio Host, Two Dancers’

A quirky evening at the Riverside Theater

ira glass one radio host two dancers
Photo credit: Benjamin Wick
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If you’re successful enough in the media, you can pretty much pursue any zany idea you want, regardless of how marketable it is. Take the case of Ira Glass, who, despite already being a seasoned presenter and producer, no doubt had to do a lot of convincing in order to get an offbeat, original show like This American Life on the air in 1995. Now that the show has proven itself one of the most beloved programs in the annals of public radio, however, no one even bats an eyelash when the soft-spoken host decides to do something a little different, like hit the road with a pair of modern dancers. So while the premise of the aptly entitled One Radio Host, Two Dancers doesn’t seem to make much sense on paper, Glass can pretty much count on his legions of loyal listeners to turn up anyway, and Saturday’s performance was no exception.

The dimming lights were met with a roar of applause, one that was surprisingly loud given the advanced age of the audience. As it abated, the voices of the performers came out of the darkness, discussing the best way to start the show and eventually deciding on a big, flashy dance number, at which point the duo of Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass came bursting out of a miniature proscenium arch set up in the middle of the stage, with Glass’ gawky frame following shortly thereafter. After assembling a podium from an old, beat-up suitcase like some sort of vaudevillian professor, with the dancers showing off their skill as he did so, Glass addressed the crowd, explaining that it was okay if they didn’t know what to expect, since they were attempting to combine two things that, as he puts it, “have no business being together.”

Charting new (if slightly silly) territory, the collaborator’s own creative process, the challenges of fusing a purely verbal art with one employing only the body, became the narrative itself, framing sub-stories from This American Life reinterpreted and expressed through movement. They pull it off better than you might expect. In one segment, the awkwardness of students suffering through their first middle school dance became palpable with the help of some reluctant audience participation, while elsewhere the pain of losing a spouse was elegantly dramatized by Bill Barnes and Bass delicately perched atop a breakfast table, locked in a difficult embrace. Factor in some wholly original material, such as a memorable piece where the experienced pair does what they do best while a prerecorded interview delves into what’s running through their minds at that very moment, and One Radio Host, Two Dancers proved more than just the sum of its parts.