Public radio host Ira Glass puts on his dancing shoes for Riverside Theater appearance

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Ira Glass with dancers Monia Bill Barnes and Anna Bass during a recent show. –Photo: Courtesy

Public Radio International personality Ira Glass said he never thought a stage show combining radio and modern dance would work. Despite success to the contrary, he still questions the concept.

Milwaukee audiences can decide for themselves when Glass, host of This American Life, brings Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host to the Riverside Theater on April 26. Glass will join dancers Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass, both members of Barnes’ terpsichorean troupe, for 90 minutes of stories, audio clips, revealing personal anecdotes and what’s been hailed as some pretty impressive stepping.

“There was no good reason to make this show at all,” said Glass, who was battling the flu during a recent telephone interview. “Nobody, me included, had any desire for a show combining radio and modern dance.”

Fans of the Peabody Award-winning This American Life, which originated at Chicago’s WBEZ and is now beamed to more than 500 stations affiliated with Public Radio International in the United States, Canada and Australia, enjoy the program’s candid, often confessional quality. Glass said he found that same quality in a performance he attended of Monica Bill Barnes Co.

Thus the idea of a joint act was hatched.

“The aesthetics of their performance had two qualities that reminded me of my show,” Glass said. “Unlike most dance companies, their performance seems almost documentary in style, and I found myself looking at their faces rather than their feet. They seemed almost vaudevillian.”

The other similarity, Glass said, was that the dancers appeared out to have fun. 

“I thought that if the people who liked my show knew this existed, they would really dig it,” Glass said.

In May 2012, the unlikely trio collaborated on three short dances that were part of a This American Life variety show beamed into movie theaters nationwide. The success of that performance led to a full show combining stories and dance.

“The first show included a number of my regulars, like David Sedaris and David Rakoff, and I interviewed the dancers at the end of the performance,” Glass said. “It went over very well, but Monica and Anna both said they thought the audience wanted to see more of me.”

One Radio Host, Two Dancers takes to the road once or twice a month. It arrives in Philadelphia on April 20 to begin a nationwide tour delivering its unlikely combination of scripted and slightly impromptu talk and dance. Glass hopes for a longer-running stay at one of New York’s smaller Broadway theaters at some future date.

“It’s a weirdly personal show,” Glass said. “We talk about experiences and feelings, and I talk about my parents, for example, in ways I wouldn’t do on my radio show.”

Despite the temptation, impromptu moments are kept to a minimum. The performance is well-scripted with what Glass said are “a hundred lighting cues and costume changes.”

“It’s highly structured, and I love that part of it,” he added. “It’s a real show-show.”

The performance, which includes live and taped commentary, is more or less divided into three acts.

“In the first part of the show, we do stories about dancers, because it’s the first thing we tried,” he said. “We have a section on love and then one on death, or at least losing what you love. Those are the three acts.”

Two years into the concept, Glass still marvels that the cross-genre mashup has generated such a positive response. The dancers also get to talk, and a review of the trio’s 2013 Ann Arbor, Mich., performance indicates that Glass indulges in a little stepping now and then — “for the humor of it all,” quipped reviewer Susan Isaacs Nisbett.

“You can see who’s trained here, and who’s not,” she added.

The radio host was mum on what his feet would be doing during the Milwaukee performance.

“We’re not talking about that,” he said.

On stage

Public radio host Ira Glass brings Three Acts,Two Dancers, One Radio Host to Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St., on April 26. For tickets and more information, call 414- 286-3205 or visit www.pabsttheater.org.

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