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Dancers break out in experimental ‘Happy Hour’ at Liberty Station venue

Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass in ‘Happy Hour,” a cocktail party dance show.
Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass in ‘Happy Hour,” a cocktail party dance show.
/ Courtesy

If Buster Keaton, Carole Burnett, and the rock band Journey created a Vegas lounge act, it might come close to “Happy Hour,” the newest show by dancer/choreographer Monica Bill Barnes.

“It’s a dance experiment,” Barnes said, from her base in New York. “We stumble and celebrate the underdog in all of us, and those wonderful, awkward moments seen in karaoke. The score is ridiculous. We mix up Men at Work, opera, Nat King Cole, Elvis and Journey, so it goes from the ’80s and back to the ‘30s. Music invites people in, so I work with familiar sounds. People will say to me, ‘You played my favorite song.’ ”

For more than a decade, Barnes, along with her namesake company, has made audiences laugh and cringe, and shed a tear. She tugs at emotions. She strips away the grace of dance, dresses it in lumpy sweaters and sequins, and plops it where it does not belong. In San Diego, she has set dances for the site-specific Trolley Dances six times, once in a swimming pool, another in a vacant lot loaded with trip hazards.

Barnes and long-time colleague Anna Bass also tour with radio host Ira Glass of “This American Life” in a show that swirls his storytelling and Barnes’ athletic quirky dance. This time they’re not packing a miniature stage or confetti. They aren’t wearing sequined dresses.

“We’ve traded them for fantastic suits,” Barnes said. “I love the departure from the ‘Three Acts’ with Ira. Yes, we love the variety show quality, but this new piece is investigating two characters, two men, as the world changes around them. The comedy is finding new life when people stumble.”

Barnes and Bass want “Happy Hour” to feel like it’s unfolding spontaneously, but it is highly choreographed. The show invites the audience to have a few drinks and sing karaoke. Things become interactive when two men in suits arrive. Barnes and Bass do all the dancing.

“There is improvisation,” Barnes said, “but Anna and I make decisions and communicate, almost telepathically. We have a kinship when we travel the world. She is funny and is perfect in so many ways. My entire life is enriched by her presence on stage and off.”

Barnes’ work has as threads of vaudeville and silent films, pop culture and tragic clowning that requires Olympic stamina. She was a child dancer and trained intensely but shifted her approach while a student at UC San Diego.

“I’m interested in the amateur aspects of performance,” Barnes said, “and empathy for characters, their struggles and successes, and how to make it a shared experience. I gained a lot of experience at UCSD — that theatrical environment and choreographing for plays. I studied philosophy and fell into the dance department where they encouraged experiments, and that’s what I do now.

“I love karaoke because performers just stand up and perform, without any safety nets. I’m fascinated by the bravery of that, and that willingness to try anything. We’re all trying things out, and finding a way to enjoy things in that moment. Anna and I want to show you some things, as if you were out with co-workers and someone starts singing ’Total Eclipse of the Heart.’”

IF YOU GO: “Happy Hour” is presented by San Diego Dance Theater at White Box Live Arts NTC at Liberty Station, 2590 Truxtun Road, upstairs. Bar opens at 6:30 p.m. Show starts at 7 p.m. March 24-26. Tickets: $20 at (619) 225-1803. sandiegodancetheater.org Mbbhappyhour.brownpapertickets.com