Monica Bill Barnes’ 2011 piece for her full company, entitled Everything is getting better all the time, may as well be a catchphrase for the company’s trajectory of success. At New York University’s Skirball Center this past weekend, Monica Bill Barnes & Company’s audience cheered on Barnes and her performers as if no less than the president were performing on stage. Her dance fans knew exactly what to expect, and they weren’t disappointed: the gummy faces and punchy dynamics of Ms Barnes, Anna Bass, Christina Robson, and Giulia Carotenuto were in full force.

Luster © Christopher Duggan
Luster
© Christopher Duggan

Luster, the only NY premiere at this performance, made sense logistically as the opening piece – it served as something of an ode to Barnes and Bass’ longtime collaboration – but it also ended up being the sum of all parts of the night’s later works. Barnes, who seeks to celebrate the “innate theatricality of everyday life”, has found a comfortable home in the realm of confetti, sequins and plumes, but it has become less of a satisfactory surprise and more of an expectation when these theatrics pop up in every dance.

But this doesn’t really seem to bother her audience members; Luster, with its lipstick gimmicks and desperate attempts of Bass to shower Barnes with the appropriate amount of confetti (What is the appropriate amount of confetti, you ask? There can never be enough, it seems), elicited laugh after laugh. The only atypical element of this piece was its conclusion with The New York City Children’s Chorus’ rendition of “I Hear a Symphony”, as Ms Barnes and Ms Bass faced upstage, hands clasped tightly. It felt somewhat abrupt, and I wasn’t entirely sure the piece was truly over until the very charming Ira Glass took the stage for a few moments while the dancers changed for the next piece (Glass recently hosted the company as part of his radio show “This American Life”).

The remaining three pieces on the program, I feel like (an excerpt from Another Parade), Mostly Fanfare and Everything is getting better all the time, felt a bit worn after the first piece. The movement vocabulary is smaller than one might expect from a professional dance company: it is gestural and tightly wound, and complemented most easily by the silly grimaces of Barnes and Bass. Mostly Fanfare is the most different, as it is set to several recordings of Nina Simone, and it is made more poignant by its ample use of canon and counterpoint movement in a solitary, diagonal line traveling downstage right. The three dancers sport plumed headdresses, white leotards, and tennis shoes. The whole piece has an aged-burlesque-dancer feel to it, as if this is the last chance for Gypsy Rose Lee to prove her performance mettle, even as everyone knows it’s just not up to snuff anymore. A sweetly comical solo for Bass, which she must constantly interrupt in order to catch cardboard boxes being thrown from the wings, was the unequivocal best part.

What sets Barnes’ work apart from most other modern dance is, I believe, her skilful use of comedy and her fearless use of Motown classics. It is so rare to see professional modern dance that not only manages not to take itself too seriously but also encourages outright laughter from its audience. These dancers are clearly performing, though their movement is often familiar in a pedestrian way; Barnes and Bass have their comedic timing down to the nanosecond, and they manage to be both explosive and contained in every fake jab and faintly vulgar pelvic thrust.

But there is a noticeable difference in the way the two younger company members approach the movement. All four dancers have obvious superior technique, but where Ms Barnes and Ms Bass are small and sharp, they are large and luxurious. Both are nice to look at, but it feels as if Ms Robson and Ms Carotenuto haven’t quite “caught on”. The punchiness isn’t there; instead, there are gorgeous extensions and distractingly complete cambres.

But even with such a disparity between performers, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Give me a responsive audience and dancers who aren’t afraid to look ridiculous any day over an all-too-serious modern dance piece that smacks of self-righteousness.