Bob Barrett recently hit a low point in his career as a dance impresario. After hiring students to put up posters for the concert he’s producing this weekend and carefully explaining the procedure (go into businesses, ask permission to put the posters up, etc), he discovered that many had been improperly posted. And the city charges for each illegally placed flyer. “So there I was at 11:30 on a cold, rainy Sunday night, ripping down posters on Clybourn,” he says. He removed 75 of them that night, praying the whole time, “Please don’t let me be fined, God.”

Barrett is a massage therapist with a good-sized contingent of dance clients who’s doing something unheard-of: spending $16,000 of his own money–no subsidies or grants are involved–to put on a two-day program of duets over the Valentine’s Day weekend. His first venture into the world of concert promotion was only last September. Touched by his clients’ lack of funds and by their dedication to their art, he spent his entire annual advertising budget to stage a concert at Northeastern Illinois University called “For Clients Only.” He hadn’t really intended to take on another concert so quickly, but the Athenaeum Theatre offered him the Valentine’s weekend and things just fell into place. Originally he planned to spend no more than $10,000 on “Duets for My Valentine,” but things have a way of costing more than you think.

Too bad Barrett couldn’t recruit his most famous client. Several years ago he was called in to give Rudolf Nureyev, then in his 50s and on his farewell tour, a much-needed massage. “He had trouble getting on the table,” Barrett recalls, and yet was performing night after night. Barrett subsequently worked on many other dancers, and he also volunteered to become the “official massage therapist” of the Chicago Breeze, the professional women’s volleyball team, offering his services for nothing to people who don’t make a lot of money but do what they enjoy.

You may think Barrett has a trust fund. He doesn’t. He says he makes about a third of what he did ten years ago as a leasing agent with the Merchandise Mart. But that job had him completely stressed-out. “Nobody likes you,” he says. “I wanted a job where nobody yells at you.” So he became a licensed massage therapist, a career in which he’s happy and makes “more than the national average for men” but is not pulling in big bucks. With his first concert he had some idea of increasing his client base of dancers, but with the reduced rate he charges them, he realized he can’t afford to take on many more. About this concert, he says, “At first I thought, Maybe I’ll make money. Then it was, Maybe I’ll break even. And finally, Maybe I won’t lose too much.”

Nevertheless, Barrett has some ideas about how to make dance a better sell. Because he believes that dance is often misunderstood–that people need to be trained how to watch it–he asked each choreographer to write a sentence or two for the program. He also thinks there’s a huge untapped audience for dance out there: men. He’s pushing this concert of duets as a “classy” Valentine’s date. “You go out, you watch some beautiful people in beautiful motions–it’s two hours of foreplay. It’s an aphrodisiac.”

Though he’s footing the bill–renting the space, paying the dancers and crew–Barrett is still bound by the cold, hard facts of dancers’ lives: one duet had to be scheduled to accommodate a performer’s bartending job later that night. Barrett is also bound by his own sense of fairness: when some dancers asked late in the process to be on the program and offered to take less money, he insisted on paying them the same as everyone else. In a way he’s placed himself under the same kind of pressure he faced as a leasing agent, but now his attitude is much more laid-back. “People think it’s such a great thing to be using your own money for a concert. Why? No dancer makes money. Neither do I.”

Twelve duos perform 13 duets–in the genres of ballet, tango, jazz, modern, swing, and salsa–in “Duets for My Valentine.” The artists featured are the Anatomical Theatre, Orlando Cancel and Caroline Walsh, Debbie Giordano, Regina Klenjoski, Harrison McEldowney, Mindy Meyers and Billy Siegenfeld, Holly Quinn and Robbie Cook, Same Planet Different World, Tango 21, Tyego Dance Project Chicago, Doug Wood, and Xsight! Performance Group. It’s at 8 Friday and Saturday at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport. Tickets–$15 for Friday, $20 for Saturday–are available at 312-902-1500. –Laura Molzahn

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bob Barrett photo by Cynthia Howe; dance photos by Frank Gimpaya.