The show begins with a familiar voice in our ears.
But instead of the way we usually hear Ira Glass’ low New York accented tones – coming into our ears via headphones as we catch public transport or walk around city streets, over the radio as we drive the car or cook dinner, one of over four million people listening each week in solitude – here, the words permeate the great black space above us, packed together in a 2000-seat theatre.
The strangest thing is how much Glass sounds exactly like himself.
Two more voices are heard: Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass, testing the sound levels in a part that is usually cut out from the radio show. They banter on how is best to start the show Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host. Do you start in the dark, with the radio host? Or in the light, with the dancers?
The dancers win out.
From the marketing material though to the performance itself, much of Three Acts is framed as an oddity. It is “a mix of two things that really have no business being on stage together at all”, says Glass, on the This American Life blog, and again on stage in front of us.
But in integrating This American Life’s blend of storytelling and interviews with live dance, continuously interrogating and experimenting with the possibilities of this relationship, Three Acts actually shows us these two forms to be perfectly suited together – because at the core of each is intimacy.
Dance…is a form that needs shared air between performer and audience.
The show, Glass tells us, won’t be recorded as it nears the end of three years of touring – when recording dance on screen, so much is lost in the transition. And while dance on screen has much to offer, especially when it bursts out of the theatre and into the world, he is right: it is a form that needs shared air between performer and audience.
It’s only in sharing a room with dancers that you can understand the pace of their breathing and the exertion of their muscles. It’s only then that you really hear their feet hit the ground; you feel their relationship to space. In a theatre that seats 50, or a theatre that seats 2000, there is a pull of energy that distils down, creating a feeling of intimacy and connection between dancers and audience – between audience and audience.
The intimacy Glass creates each week is altogether different. There, as you listen to This American Life, it isn’t you and hundreds of others sharing physical space. It is only you, with Glass talking into your ears, with no one else any the wiser.
On stage together, the intimacy the dancers create with their audience is transferred to Glass, as his own intimacy takes on a new shape. Glass could easily have toured Australia, to places like the Wheeler Centre, to merely sit and talk about his work. It would have been transferable: recorded and documented though video and audio, accessible to anyone who wanted to listen. Instead, a man who makes something heard by millions every week choose to make something small enough that it could only be held by the people it shared a room with.
While podcasting allows Glass to reach Australia each week, this tour marks Monica Bill Barnes & Company Productions’ first Australian performances. Barnes (who also directs) and Bass are all sinewy bodies and plasticine faces, dancing with the energy and verve rarely seen outside of a dance school recital. Barnes’ choreography is joyous, and largely built off comedy: sequined dresses and New Balance sneakers; dowdy jumpers and aggressive sexuality; business suits and masculine energy and gorgeous leaps.
It’s not ridiculous to assume this audience knows more about how to listen to podcasts than how to watch dance. Dance is often looked upon by those who aren’t familiar with it as something inscrutable, as if comprehension is only for those who have studied the art form. Above this, dance has a reputation for being serious; even experienced dance audiences are often hesitant to start laughing, lest they be seen as reading the work wrong.
Here, then, what the radio-show format offers to the audience is a point of contextualisation: we are primed to enjoy ourselves, and laugh. There is nothing po-faced about these dancers – the unexpected backdrop and accessibility of humour gives us permission to experience dance with levity. The audience is more effusive than most: they clap and cheer more readily and more loudly than a typical dance audience – when Glass dances, of course, but also when it is simply Barnes and Bass with their skill and joy.
The radio format allows the relationship between words and dancer to be beautifully complex.
Three Acts really shines where the forms of radio and dance exist in a complex relationship with each other. As Glass tells a story of Riverdance performers and dedication and training, Barnes and Bass jog. Instead of Riverdance, we see contemporary movement: two dancers extending a leg, and throwing out a hand, looking down their arms, moving back and forth across the stage, in simple, endless repetition.
But then, perhaps we do see Riverdance in our mind’s telling of the story, while also literally watching comedic contemporary dance. Suddenly, a story about Riverdance becomes so much bigger; and contemporary dance becomes about everything you don’t see, rather than everything you do.
Later, Barnes and Glass shift the tone of the show, the audience hushed as Barnes and Bass dance in quiet tenderness, as fragile as butterfly wings. They stand, barefoot, on a table, warm in thick coats; intimately connected, not letting go. They sway and fall, hold and fail, as we listen to a recording of Donald Hall reading his ‘Last Days’ – a poem written about the last days of his wife’s life. It would be easy for a piece like this to feel too conspicuous in a dance work, but here the radio format allows the relationship between words and dancer to be beautifully complex.
In a blackout, Glass demonstrates the power of radio and the skilled hand with which he creates This American Life: gently talking, as if directly to us, he seeds images in our minds. From the dark, a circle of white light illuminates a dancer for just a moment. When it switches back off, Glass tells us of the next steps the dancer takes: we’re told of a foot making a gentle curve on the ground. As the white light shines again, the dancer’s foot has moved to where we place it in our minds. Like much of the show, like much of This American Life, and like much independent contemporary dance, there is a feeling of simplicity borne of great complexity. Just a voice, a handheld light, one visible body. And yet…
During Three Acts, Glass muses that perhaps our faculties are diminished when we go see performance. We have spent money on our tickets; we have taken time out from our lives; we have chosen to see something we hope to enjoy. This, inevitably, raises the question within the audience themselves: are they really enjoying Three Acts? Or is this simply an audience so excited to see Glass they’ve convinced themselves that they’re enjoying themselves, and that bringing together three acts, two dancers, and one radio host really works?
If you were to ask this audience, I don’t think they would mind either way.