Dance, Sports, Tragedy and Triumph, ‘The Running Show’ is a Winner [REVIEW]

Monica Bill Barnes & Company in “The Running Show”. Photo by David Wilson Barnes.

Monica Bill Barnes & Company
The Running Show
The University of Akron’s E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
Akron, OH

September 25, 2021

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Billed as an athletic, humorous and insightful dance-theater work/live documentary that looks at the life of a dancer as athlete/sports figure, Monica Bill Barnes & Company’s The Running Show did that as well as creating a glorious and touching metaphor for that race we call life.

Presented by Akron University’s Dance Program and DANCECleveland to open its 65th Anniversary Season, the non-virtual world premiere performance Saturday night at The University of Akron’s E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall featured a multigenerational cast. They included students from the Akron University’s Dance Program and Dance Institute, guest performer Diana Byer, founder/artistic director of New York Theatre Ballet, and Monica Bill Barnes & Company’s Robbie Saenz de Viteri, Flannery Gregg and Barnes herself.

Co-created by Barnes, who choreographed the hourlong work, and Saenz de Viteri who wrote its script, The Running Show, a la the company’s popular Three acts, two dancers, one radio host, felt like a physicalized episode of Ira Glass’s This American Life. In it, Saenz de Viteri sat at a table at the front of the stage and with a microphone and narrated, telling stories, reciting stats, and playing recorded anecdotes from the onstage performers as well as New York-based dancers of all ages. He also acted as sports announcer shouting out play-by-play and color commentary on the dancing.

Set to an eclectic soundtrack from country and classical to rock and new wave music, the work began with Barnes and 13 Dance Program dancers jogging into a high energy and aerobic finger snapping contest pitting the 48-year-old Barnes against the diverse group of decades younger upstarts. The queen of punctuated movement and animated facial expressions, Barnes took this rather simple and repetitive collection of movement and turned it into a high stakes competitive struggle that was humorous and had the audience routing and cheering for the participants. As the seen progressed, the finger-snapping contest turned into one with dancers seeing how long they could balance with one leg lifted. One by one dancers dropped out of the competition to take a seat on a line of chairs stretched horizontally across the rear of the stage (much like baseball or basketball’s bench) until only Barnes remained.

Monica Bill Barnes & Company in “The Running Show”. Photo by David Wilson Barnes.

Barnes’s rudimentary choreography for the work resembled a fusion of an aerobics class with elements of ballet. Playing into the dancer as sports figure theme, the choreography also had many recognizable sports inferences from baseball to boxing. Purposefully basic enough to translate across a range of dancer skill levels, the choreography paired nicely with Saenz de Viteri’s narration, so that the audience did not miss any of either.

Recorded interviews with young dancers on why they dance, Dance Program dancers on what effect the global pandemic had on their training and career, and Saenz de Viteri’s observations and relating stories of sports figures such as comparing 48-year-old former NHL hockey player Jaromír Jágr’s long career to that of a dancer, were accompanied by various cast members performing Barnes’s workout-like choreography.

Perhaps most indicative of the dance as sport themed vignettes was a solo for Barnes in which she was portrayed as a sports figure looking to eclipse her own record for how many turns she could complete during a song. Trying to beat 126 turns, the audience cheered Barnes on withthe fervor of someone going for a world record.

While filled with many delightful and physically invigorating scenes, The Running Show’s most gripping moments came in several poignant scenes that reflected on our shared humanity. Scenes such as Barnes as boxer, switching between donning eye grease and a mouth guard to putting on make-up and hairspray that served as a metaphor for the struggles of women in society. One featuring the story of a veteran New York dancer/choreographer who refused to refer to herself as a dancer until she was involved in a car accident that left her screaming non-stop at the accident scene, “I’m a dancer!,” when she thought she had lost the use of her legs. A duet with Barnes and 75-year-old Byer about aging as a dancer, and an anecdote of how Barnes’s father, who had to give up his running passion because of heart issue, has repeatedly asked her what she will do when she can no longer dance; a question she has never answered.

Thoughtfully crafted, enthusiastically performed and universally relatable to dancers and non-dancers alike, The Running Show crossed its finish line as an endearing and entertaining winner.

Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.