Fans of “This American Life” know, and some of us love, host Ira Glass’ voice, soft, quick, worldly and wordy, but it’s only recently that audiences have come to know what he looks like. After thirty-some years in radio, to see the voice made flesh was strange, at first. When his popular NPR/PRI radio hour went on tour as a live, HD simulcast show a few years back, or for those who have seen him in rare, live appearances, it was interesting, but not astounding.
The bespectacled man, curly hair like his cousin, composer Philip Glass, did what he usually does: sit at a desk and cue up story after story, and provide the framing structure to lead us through it. But his spirit of adventure and of rising to a challenge — the same one, he says, that led him to start broadcasting in the first place — has found him heading a very odd evening this coming Saturday: Ira Glass will appear with two dancers who will accompany his evening of stories. It’s a “This American Life” that moves, called “One Radio Host, Two Dancers.”
It’s not like Mr. Glass has a background or even a hobbyist interest in dance. “Like many, I would only go to see dance if I knew somebody in the show,” he says. “Think about parents with little kids, or like in your twenties and you had that friend who was a dancer who invites you to her show? That was my level.”
Having met choreographer, Monica Barnes, founder of Monica Bill Barnes Company, at a talent show, Mr. Glass wanted to see her work.
“They place strong emphasis on characters,” he says. “The first time I saw them I thought, this has the aesthetic of our radio show, just without words.”
Part of it was the Barnes Company’s use of narrative, over abstraction. The other was the regular, everyday look of the dancers — nothing statuesque or iconic. The dances, to Mr. Glass, related emotions that were entirely understandable to him, including “moments that were very small and awkward; you were surprised they could be put into a dance.”
The story goes that Ms. Barnes approached Mr. Glass about collaborating, and not the other way around. It was an experience much easier than the brief television version of “This American Life,” as they found their styles such a match. At first Mr. Glass included Ms. Barnes and fellow dancer Anna Bass in a live performance of “This American Life,” but as a segment by itself, and Mr. Glass would interview them afterwards. But Ms. Barnes felt that people were just coming to see Mr. Glass — it wasn’t yet a true collaboration.
“So we decided to sketch it out, what that would look like, and we went from there,” he says. “Monica is treating me like one of her dancers, even though I just do the talking … She’s definitely the one in charge, and she should be. To adapt words to go with music is something that I have no qualification for at all.”
What they DIDN’T want to do was to have them illustrate a story, “storybook like” with dance moves. (Although once we start talking about it, Mr. Glass gets this perverse idea to design a segment just like that … one day down the road “when this is the most popular art form in the country.”
According to Mr. Glass, his upcoming appearance will only be the third time this experiment has been performed, and “with all new numbers. We’ve revised it.”
“It killed in its first show,” Mr. Glass says. “But we realized there were things we wanted to do in a flashier way. There were numbers that were not quite as flashy that we added more production value and zing to. There’s one number we keep moving to different spots in the show to figure out the best place. Sadly, I don’t have a great story to go with this. There’s been a lot of tightening and sharpening.”
“In my experience, California audiences are very different from East Coast audiences,” he says. “My sense is that Santa Barbara gets a big dance crowd. It will be interesting to see what happens when people who are used to seeing dance come out to see it.”
And here’s a secret to the show that isn’t really that secret if one looks around the web: Ira Glass dances in the show too … but only for a little bit.
“I don’t want to oversell it,” he says. “It’s very, very minimal. And hard fought on my part. Even those few minutes took months of practice. If you come to the show and see the one or two minutes I dance, you’ll be SHOCKED at how long it took me to learn them.”
One Radio Host, Two Dancers
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Granada, 1214 State St.
Cost: $28-$53, $20 for UCSB Students
Information: 893-3535, www.artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu