Sitting in the dark on Thursday night at Town Hall, radio host Ira Glass and dancers Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass can be heard debating how to start their show. Ira suggests a segment not unlike what listeners hear on This American Life. The dancers prefer something with more sparkle and pizzazz. They get their way, bursting out from behind a red curtain in sequenced dresses with confetti showering onto the stage. So begins Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host, which the trio has been touring across the country and made its NYC debut this past week.
A running theme in this touching, funny, and rare piece of storytelling-dance collaboration is the awareness that this is a storytelling-dance collaboration, which you don’t hear (or see) that often. Ira acknowledges that ticket holders are probably wondering whether they’ll get their money’s worth, and gives a shout-out to anyone who was dragged to the performance on a date. At the same time, he makes clear that he has deep respect and admiration for dancers. He admits, “They’ve been training for much longer than most other people train for the careers they’re in.”
While Monica and Anna dance in their slightly off-kilter, vaudeville, theatrical way, Ira tells stories. Act One: the job of being a performer. Act Two: falling in love and staying in love. Act Three: nothing lasts forever. The audience hears about a group of Riverdance performers who think they’ll win the lottery if they buy enough tickets, accompanied by Monica and Anna’s hilarious, repetitive arm-rolling; sometimes being a performer means doing the exact same thing over and over again. Another story is about the awkwardness of middle school dances, at which point audience members are invited on stage to dance with each other and pose for a Polaroid under an arch of purple and gold balloons, bubbles, and a disco ball.
Paired with the self-awareness about their unusual collaboration are personal stories, which you hardly ever hear from Ira on the radio. He opens up about his relationship (and fights) with his wife. While the dancers change costumes backstage, he shows his animal balloon-making skills, which he learned while leading kids’ birthday parties when he was a teenager.
At one point, the soundtrack for the dancers is a recording of Ira’s interview with each of them. Anna reluctantly shares what it’s like to perform with Monica. She worries that this information will ruin the experience for the audience. Quite the opposite; it’s enlightening. Monica, who is 41, shares her fears about what’s next after dance. She doesn’t have a plan.
Adding to the theme of ephemerality is a tribute of sorts to Ira’s friend, writer David Rakoff, who died of cancer in 2012, just months after he performed a short dance piece choreographed by Monica at This American Life Live! On an otherwise dark stage, Ira held a spotlight up to Monica as she held poses from that piece.
Just as Monica and Anna agreed to be interviewed, Ira wasn’t going to get away without showing off his dance chops. In fact, the show’s title is misleading. There are really three dancers on stage, not two. Ira knows his stuff: he kicks, jumps, spins, and even twirls a baton, all the while with a slightly self-conscious grin and a laugh. Three superb performers, two not-so-mismatched genres, one brilliant show.