Sept. 14 2016 12:56 AM

After a brief hiatus, the choreography vet returns to Trolley Dances for its 18th year

    Trolley Dances rehearsal at Fault Line Park
    Photo by Jim Carmody

    Even for a choreography veteran, it can be difficult to come up with fresh concepts and create innovative movements that connect with audiences. Nobody feels this pressure more than Monica Bill Barnes. In her seventh Trolley Dances, Barnes says she feels the pressure to create something new each and every time.

    “I feel so supported in this environment, but I actually think that there’s more pressure,” says the one-time local who’s now based in New York. “You don’t ever want to repeat yourself, and for an audience to get to know your aesthetic does invite you to step up your game each time you come back.”

    In its 18th year, San Diego Dance Theater has evolved Trolley Dances into a respected piece of the San Diego cultural community. Since the late ’90s, founder Jean Isaacs has commissioned acclaimed choreographers, like Barnes, to create site-specific dance pieces around San Diego trolley stops. Although each choreographer creates a distinct and separate piece, Trolley Dances continues to receive more attention because of the unique experience it provides to the audience.

    “What’s funny is that if you think about how often you go see a show, you don’t feel a community with the people you’re seeing it with,” says Barnes. “I think with Trolley Dances, Jean really creates a community with each audience.”

    This year’s tour through Barrio Logan on the MTS Blue Line will give choreographers Bill Shannon, Zaquia Mahler Salinas, Jean Isaacs, Jess Humphrey and Barnes a chance to work with surroundings untapped by any previous Trolley Dances.

    Since Barnes’ previous involvement in Trolley Dances in 2012, she has continued to develop her quirky style and immerse herself in new projects, including a collaboration with Ira Glass, called Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host. This humorous production, along with many others, has led Barnes to be dubbed the “Tina Fey of dance” by the The Washington Post. Although she has years of experience, she did not land in San Diego with a plan. For Barnes, it seemed logical to develop her choreography when she arrived at her Fault Line Park location.

    “All of the ideas develop on-site. You can have the best idea, then you can put it to use and it can be terrible. So for the first couple days, there’s a lot of trial and error. Also, for me, it’s important to understand what the dancers are like and how to highlight their personalities,” she says.

    Though it may seem risky to arrive without a plan, Barnes is no stranger to taking risks and succeeding. As a philosophy student at UC San Diego, she planned on going to law school. However, last minute decisions and a gut feeling led Barnes to continue to pursue her passion for dance. Nevertheless, her time at UCSD did not go to waste, as it was there where she began to make connections between philosophy, choreography and humor.

    “I think philosophy actually relates really well to choreography because it is essentially asking you to articulate really difficult ideas clearly, and I feel like choreography is asking you to articulate abstract ideas clearly so that an audience feels invited into the experience you’re making and not alienated from it,” Barnes says.

    Although Barnes finds herself pushing her creativity for the upcoming Trolley Dances, her goals that she has upheld throughout her career remain the same.

    “I think my hope with anything I make is that it’s communicative and the audience feels invested by it,” Barnes says. “Often times I use gesture and familiar situations so that the audience doesn’t feel like they’re seeing something entirely abstract, but rather that they’re seeing something that can relate to an experience they’ve had. So, the hope is that the work is broad and you feel pulled into a common experience.”


    Swan Lake
    Photo courtesy of The Russian Grand Ballet


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