HUMOR & WIT: Their Dances Make Us Laugh

Patricia Sandback works in San Diego, and Monica Bill Barnes is based in New York, yet with a little planning, you can enjoy both of their upcoming productions and laugh till it hurts.

“I’ve done serious dances, but you can communicate a lot more with humor,” says Pat Sandback, a revered choreographer and dance professor at San Diego State University. I loved soap operas on the radio, especially “As the World Turns,” because it was so outrageous. I always had the idea of putting that kind of drama into a dance, which became ‘Cherries.’ There are a lot of doctors in the dance!”

Faith Jensen Ismay in "Life is Just a Bowl of Cheeries." Photo:  George Willis

Faith Jensen Ismay in Pat Sandback’s  “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries.” Photo: George Willis

In Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries, Sandback incorporates ridiculous soap opera summaries that used to appear in the local newspaper. The one-act comedy debuted several years ago and returns to The Vine at the Bernardo Winery with the Mojalet Dance Collective for two weekends in February, 2014.

Faith Jensen Ismay.  Photo:  George Willis

Faith Jensen Ismay plays a demented chef in “Cherries.” Photo: George Willis

“I’ve added a little intro section,” Sandback says, “but there is still Wagner’s evil troll, Albrecht, danced by Angelica Bell, and she’s also the maid. There’s nothing better than laughter. There’s room for serious dance, and there are serious issues, but we can’t be overwhelmed by the complexity of life.”

The title “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” comes from the popular song from 1931. We hear Louis Armstrong’s version in the show, and a few little songs Sandback wrote herself.

“I get ideas from big operas too, because they have to do with love gone wrong,” she says. “As a choreographer, you get a theme, and there are more and more ideas that keep appearing -that’s when you know you have something rich.”

Also on the program is Mojalet director Faith Jensen-Ismay’s Chisholm Trail, about the highs and lows of cowboy life in the early 1900s.

“I love working with Mojalet, says Sandback. “The dancers give so much and can act. Faith is the demented chef again. Faith and I have worked well together for many years.”

Sandback has taught dance and choreography at SDSU for 42 years and is admired for her smart, quirky dances. She’s in the fourth of her fifth year of “FERPing,” that’s Faculty Early Retirement Program, and teaches half time.

Always editing and planning, she hopes to bring the madcap humor of Cherries to Europe.

The cast of "Cherries."  Photo:  George Willis

The cast of “Cherries.” Photo: George Willis

“At The Vine, we’ve had to change entrances and adjust to the space,” she says, “but the audience is very close; they can see the subtle characters. Yes, we need more laughter, and I’ve realized that all of my reject ideas may become another funny show, about heaven and hell.”


Monica Bill Barnes in motion. Photo credit: J.M. Lennon/Lennon Media

Monica Bill Barnes in motion. Photo credit: J.M. Lennon/Lennon Media

“I didn’t start out to make work that was funny,” says Monica Bill Barnes, whose career as a dancer and choreographer stretches from New York to San Diego and back. “What I find tragic can make people burst into laughter.”

Barnes presented Every Night’s a Show Night in January, as part of a concert to celebrate Jean Isaacs’ 70th birthday at UC San Diego, and didn’t want the dance to be pretty.

“I was a philosophy major there and took as many of Jean’s classes as I could,” Barnes says. “I admire her sense of humor and grit. I work with the idea of running and the performance as a marathon, to embrace the idea of exhaustion. In the live recordings, you can hear [Judy] Garland’s sparkle, and the wear and tear, the years of hard life.”

In the dance, four women punched and kicked their hearts out. The comic tragedy was accentuated by sequined gowns and running shoes, baggy raincoats, and desperate groveling for flowers tossed onto the stage.

“Humor is big for me,” Barnes says. “I’m sincere in my efforts but I don’t try to be funny. It just happens. That’s how clowns work. We find humor in their tragedy.”

For the site-specific program Trolley Dances set along the tracks of San Diego, Barnes has set dances in dusty parking lots and swimming pools. She’s presented lively work at the Jacob’s Pillow Festival, the Joyce, and Carnegie Hall.

As she walked to rehearsal on a cold evening in New York last week, she was gearing up for another collaborative tour with National Public Radio’s Ira Glass.

Choreographer Monica Bill Barnes (Right) and dancer Anna Bass team with radio host Ira Glass. Photo credit: David Bazemore

Choreographer Monica Bill Barnes (Right) and dancer Anna Bass team with radio host Ira Glass. Photo credit: David Bazemore

Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host has crisscrossed the country (though Santa Barbara was as close as it got to San Diego). A new version starts again at Lisner Auditorium in Washington D.C., in February 2014. San Diego fans are heading north to see the silliness at Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley, March 29, 2014.

“Ira uses radio in a similar way that I use dance,” Barnes says. We have common ground.”

Barnes met the nasal radio host a few years ago in a Brooklyn bar when she served as a judge on a parody of “Dancing with the Stars.” Glass, a stiff non-dancer, won second place for a modern-dance duet.

Glass saw one of Barnes’ shows and was struck by her “funny, personal, and human moments without words.”

Barnes and longtime dance partner Anna Bass then created three little dances for “This American Life Live!” that were broadcast to 600 movies theaters across America, Canada, and Australia. That success prompted Glass and Barnes to make the full show that combines their favorite radio stories and dance works about human moments. Glass has said “the show combines two art forms that have no business being together – dance and radio.”

Glass doesn’t dance much in the production; he leaves that to the professional dancers. Barnes and Bass don’t speak live, but their voices are featured.

It’s a tornado of elements, Barnes says. “Pretty is not the goal. We stumble and that lets the audience empathize.  And life is a good comedy.”

A version of HUMOR & WIT:  Their Dances Make Us Laugh also appears at


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