NPR host, dancers delight at Zellerbach

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“We know that you have no idea what you’re in for at all.”

Show host Ira Glass acknowledged that combining dance and radio seems, and is, a bit ludicrous. As two separate media — one primarily based in audio and one primarily based in visuals — nothing inherently combines the two. Aside from providing voiceover to a dance number or having dancers re-enact a segment of a radio story, it is impossible to combine dance and radio into a way that feels natural. However, Glass and dancers Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass are such charismatic performers that every bit of the radio-dance act “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host,” presented by Cal Performances in Zellerbach Hall on Saturday, justified the combination of these two disconnected mediums.

Much credit is due to Glass. Extending his radio persona from his popular NPR program, “This American Life,” Glass brought an earnest, grounded presence to a show that sounded a little bit too preposterous to begin with. He’s a natural, experienced storyteller and entertainer. When technical problems plagued part of the second act of the show, Glass proceeded to improvise some of the act by recounting a story of a time when the word “cocksucker” wasn’t censored on the air of Minnesota public radio. Even when the audience realized he was stalling for time, they were still gripped by his story.

As a limited-run show that was only at Zellerbach once, some technical problems are bound to happen — but Glass’s ability to hold the audience’s attention is enough to run the show. His scripted segments were well written, and his stage presence commanded the show only when necessary. Independent from the show, Glass is an inquisitive, yet optimistic, voice who can please an audience through his stage presence.

When integrating dance directly into Glass’s storytelling, many of ideas turned out to be surprisingly clever. While most of the stories in “Three Acts” were taken directly from “This American Life,” the physical presence of the stage transformed these stories into a performance, even overshadowing the spoken stories themselves at times. Glass’ retelling of anecdotes from an awkward middle-school prom led to Barnes and Bass gathering six strangers from the audience to recreate their own awkward middle-school dance on the stage, complete with a balloon arch, photographer and disco ball. Another segment had one of the dancers re-enact the last performance of the late author David Rakoff from a live “This American Life” show recorded nearly a year ago.

Perhaps the most clever act of the night was when Barnes and Bass performed their own set as Glass played clips from an interview he had done with Bass prerecorded for the show. In the interview, Bass talks with Glass about her stage persona, her relationship with her dance partner and her drive to be a dancer, all while the audience watches the physical expression of these motives and philosophies firsthand. It’s meta and disorienting at first but becomes brilliant as the story unravels and the barrier of the dancer’s persona crumbles.

While Barnes and Bass’ choreography is intricate in its own right, “Three Acts” goes out of its way to recognize the duo not just as dancers but as humans, each with her own subtle style and drive. This idea reframes these dances not as choreographed sessions but as storytelling performed by those who can’t speak with words. Yet while these two dancers produce interesting movements, the two or three segments unpaired with any story still felt out of place.

As a whole, “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host” entertained in a way that’s hard to describe within a dance or radio context. In the final performance, Glass took the stage, dancing with Barnes and Bass in an explosive final act that featured batons and exploding confetti. While the media don’t perfectly mix, Glass, Barnes and Bass know how to please an audience, managing to make a spectacle with whatever they’ve got.

Contact Art Siriwatt at [email protected].