Ira Glass Can Dance!
Sort of. The public radio star mixed stories and dance in his touring show, and it somehow worked.
The last time Ira Glass stepped on a stage in Milwaukee I was strolling along Navy Pier in Chicago. A friend was visiting from Canada and I was playing tour guide. We are both fans of This American Life and when we came across the WBEZ-Chicago studio (where Glass started hosting This American Life in 1995), saw a poster for Glass’ tour and realized he was 93 miles away at the Pabst Theater, we could have kicked ourselves.
This time around I was fully aware that Glass was performing at the Riverside Theater over the weekend, yet once again I was in Chicagoland on a train from Denver that was five hours late. I’m pretty sure that Glass and his legion of public radio listeners support rail travel. I myself am a strong proponent of trains and ride them all the time. But if you have somewhere to be quickly, they’re usually not your best bet. Luckily, I had an operative at the show taking notes for the early parts I missed.
“What if we started out the show with words?” Glass asks the two dancers, Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass, in a recording that opens the performance. “That’s a terrible idea,” they reply. A fitting beginning for this oddball show. The only set piece onstage was an archway with red curtains that the dancers entered and exited through. Glass emerged to loud applause with a suitcase containing a sheet music stand, which he assembled himself and used for his notes. He whimsically waved an iPad Mini around to cue the audio clips that played throughout the performance, giving him the air of a conductor onstage.
In the first act we get to know the dancers and get a glimpse into what it’s like to be a performer. Glass reminds the dancers of the impending expiration date on their careers, while admitting he could do his job until he croaks. While Barnes and Bass are dancing they appear to be synchronized, but interview clips reveal how distinct and competitive they are, while tuning the audience into the subtle differences in their performance.
The second act is about finding and holding onto love. This is where Glass uttered the words, “Now I’m going to do something I’ve never done before,” which got the crowd on the edge of their seat. He offered a rare look into his personal life by discussing the early courtship with his wife. But in typical Glass form, he mostly accomplished this through clips of another man describing his own relationship. Dealing with and overcoming awkwardness is an overarching theme on This American Life and it was brought to the stage in the second act. During a segment about middle school dances Barnes and Bass went into the audience and brought back six strangers onstage who slow danced in pairs.
The final act is about losing love. Barnes and Bass danced to a hip hop song. They were playful, energetic and at one point exposed their shoulders and gave them a few licks. Glass played a clip from the very first episode of This American Life, an interview with his mother, who has since passed away. There were three levels of Glass in that moment; him interviewing his mother, him as radio host intercutting commentary in the episode and the physical version onstage adding anecdotes.
“Some things just don’t come around again,” Glass said as he discussed the singularity of the experience we were witnessing. That gets to the heart of what Glass enjoys about doing this show. It’s not a pre-recorded radio program or a talk that can easily be recorded and shared. The dance elements are unique to each audience and their perspective. Glass teamed up with Barnes after noticing similarities in their sensibility. Their movements were tender and spirited, which made for a good match.
The show is part modern dance appreciation, part This American Life highlights, part watch Ira Glass dance. While the moves were probably 90 percent Barnes and Bass, whenever Glass came out and joined them, no matter how poorly or goofily he danced, the applause amplified and cheering ensued. For many of the faithful, seeing Glass dance is worth the ticket price alone. The show is booked (one performance a month) through 2015 and may eventually land a run on Broadway. Pretty good for such a bad idea.
Ian Beck also contributed to this article for which I’m thankful.