Duets for My Valentine

at the Athenaeum Theatre, February 11-12

By Terry Brennan

Bob Barrett has created an amazing thing. A massage therapist who began to specialize in dancers after working on Rudolf Nureyev during his farewell tour, Barrett began putting on “Duets for My Valentine” in 1998; investing his own money, he would have been satisfied not to lose too much of it. But the show has been a big hit, selling out in 1999 and this year.

All the dances on this program–except the finale, an ensemble piece–adhered to a strict form: the pas de deux, a romantic duet between a man and woman. A classic, even hoary genre, it allows choreographers a limited range of responses: they can try to produce a stunning example of the form or they can rebel against it–make fun of it, add folkloric elements to it, somehow try to change it into something else. The 14 choreographers here tried all these responses as well as other, subtler modifications.

Paradoxically the strictness of the form has made the differences among the choreographers more vivid. This despite the fact that in the last few decades different types of dance have begun to merge. Jazz, ballet, and modern dancers often use the same movement vocabulary, and short sequences may be interchangeable. What’s come to matter more than the vocabulary is how choreographers use it–what sense and texture they give a piece.

A major influence on these dances is American pop culture. Pas de deux inevitably share emotional space with romantic pop songs. And just as such songs tend to fall into the “break up” or “get together” categories, pas de deux tend to focus on mutual attraction or fighting. Choreographers must either avoid these two cliches or adopt and conquer them by main force.

Direct assault is the means chosen by Sarah Ford, August Tye, and Jon Lehrer: their strategy is to create sizzling hot duets. Ford does it most clearly; in The Call her dancers are scantily clad, and what clothes they’re wearing are bright red. As we hear Alice Coltrane’s winding jazz-funk, we see a man and woman in silhouette at the beginning against a deep red backdrop. She begins moving, and throughout the piece draws the man closer to her, ending cradled in his arms. Their movement is sharp, abrupt then slow, and urgent, with many lifts. Ford makes no attempt to make them equals: the man’s movements and motives and the woman’s are always distinct. Ultimately this is a woman’s fantasy of being cherished because she’s irresistibly sexy.

For In the Garden Tye uses scantily clad dancers, but her focus is more on the bare-chested man. Her duet has lots of pyrotechnics but doesn’t make much emotional sense and so falls somewhat flat. Tye is also ill served by a Kurt Elling rendition of a Sting song–Elling sometimes bellows as he scats. Lehrer, of Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, pushes the sex angle pretty hard in Persuasion. Some of his shapes look like they’d be tremendous fun in coitus, but only for sleek, strong dancers like these; we mere mortals will have to make do with Lehrer’s fantastical, if slightly pornographic, vision.

Another response is to make fun of the pas de deux, whether gently or bitterly. Most of these choreographers opt for gentleness. Shannon Preto in Tye’s Slimed is an everyguy who becomes obsessed with a girl; in a simple visual metaphor, Aimee Tye leaps on his shoulders and refuses to detach herself until he realizes what she means to him. The sweetest parody of romance is M.K. Victorson’s M.K.V. + S.D. = T.L.A., about her overwhelming crush on a boy at her church camp: she fell for Sean because he was the only Italian-American Lutheran she’d ever met. Although when the dance starts the couple wear sacristans’ robes and light candles on an altar, eventually they throw off the robes and begin dancing to a Journey song in everyday clothes–T-shirts and shorts or bicycle pants. The bitterest humor comes from LeAnne Vancil and Christian Gochenour of the Anatomical Theatre; in their Amy & Jack, a tangoing couple also disrobes, throwing off suit and evening dress to reveal chains and G-strings. The light bondage that follows is played mostly for laughs. The underlying message is that it’s not about love but about sex–and kinky sex at that.

Harrison McEldowney comes up with a characteristic comic portrait that has dark undertones. During the first of three Fats Waller songs in That Ain’t Right a predatory man and sweet brunet in a red dress dance at top speed, leaping and tossing each other around. In the second section, after he turns away, she dances to a torch song and mimes wiping away tears. The third song–accompanying his solo–starts “I dreamed about a reefer”; he’s a good-for-nothing who eventually falls stoned into the orchestra pit.

A third strategy is to pretend that no strategy is needed. It works for Paul Abrahamson of the Moose Project, who presents a piece on point, From Five-and-Five; he’s able to fall back on the ballet tradition, which originated the pas de deux. But Ellyzabeth Adler’s When Raindrops Fall is just sappy, lapsing straight into cliche.

A fourth strategy is to introduce folkloric or popular dance elements. Eduardo Vilaro of Luna Negra Dance Theater does this brilliantly in Ogtan, using tango as a sort of ground; the start-and-stop rhythm of Astor Piazzolla’s music gives the duet a satisfying structure. The Chicago Swing Half-Breeds remind us that the everyday pas de deux is often a partnering social dance like the lindy hop. In Nicole Wood’s piece the man isn’t just expressing attraction–he’s trying to get the woman to dance with him. She’s reluctant but eventually warms up because they dance so well together: the drama of the pas de deux in a nutshell. Tosh Junior and Wood are completely charming in their wild partnering; I particularly liked the moment when the heavyset Junior suddenly popped off a series of back flips.

Only two pieces transcend the pas de deux form. Melissa Thodos and Anthony Gongora base their In Two Time on a metaphor for love from particle physics, repeated in a voice-over: “Two particles of light moving in opposite directions seem to remain in contact.” This movement was so cool, sleek, and detailed that the dance reminded me of assembling a space station; Stan Nezin’s eerie music probably helped prompt this association. Yet the movement is continuously fluid, and the dance both has a lovely texture and poses a biting question: have we become so overworked and stressed that simply remaining in contact like particles of light with the same spin is all the intimacy we can expect?

Molly Shanahan of the Mad Shak Dance Company answers that question optimistically and gently. In Crashed and Cradled the man and woman wind around each other constantly and without melodrama. At moments she stops, looks at him, then runs to cling to him like a baby monkey clinging to its mother. He holds her steadily, then they’re off again to the winding and touching. To me this was an image of lovers living together, as if they were twisting their two lives and selves into a single rope.

It’s easy to focus on the struggles and drama of love–on attraction and rejection–because they’re the things we encounter first and that our culture emphasizes. But Thodos and Gongora’s In Two Time and Shanahan’s Crashed and Cradled go below the surface: they show that love’s true goals are intimacy and knowledge.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Erica Dufour/August Tye.