About a year ago, Don Zuckerman and Helen Rea, "regulars" of the Washington dance scene who've been working together for some years at the Dance Exchange, got the bright notion of making their already blossoming partnership into a performing unit, under the name "Duets, etc." Their repertory is not of their own making, but instead is culled from the work of prominent choreographers, both resident and visiting. The word "etc." in the company moniker allows for departure from the duo format, into solos, for example, or, as in the couple's program at the Washington Project for the Arts this past weekend, an occasional trio like Carol Boggs Scott's "Sun Air Earth," with the choreographer joining Zuckerman and Rea as a guest performer.
Hence the WPA program included, beside Scott's trio, one solo and four duets by Washington choreographers Cathy Paine, Liz Lerman and Sally Nash, and New Yorkers Marta Renzi and Hannah Kahn. It was an interesting assortment with nicely drawn contrasts of style and content; indeed, the program itself was enough to justify the enterprise. The execution, however, was a mixed affair, demonstrating both interpretive strengths and weaknesses of the Duets, etc. pair.
Renzi's "Working Variations" (a duet excerpted from a larger work) was in a class by itself in its complexity, daring, originality and kinetic spark. The piece traces the giddy ins and outs of a contemporary young couple who play with each other, tease, fight, make up, hug, separate and walk off as fanny-patting pals. What's remarkable about it is the richly layered sense of emotional nuance that radiates from a subtle intertwining of everyday gesture, intricately casual movement, and music (a seemingly incongruous aria from Bach's Cantata No. 57, about the grimness of a life bereft of divine love, that somehow works perfectly). The concept and choreography not only took advantage of the warm camaraderie Zuckerman and Rea have developed as a team, but elicited from them the most convincing performance of the program.
Rather closely allied to the Renzi and nearly matching it in inspiration and craft was Nash's "A Portrait," created for Duets, etc. and seen here in its premiere. The work also mixes quotidian gesture with more "dancy" movement, this time to country music, in depicting a disintegrating love affair. Rea wears men's clothing; Zuckerman is in a long dress--clearly, they've gotten under each other's skin, but in the end contempt and indifference sever the bond. Nash sagely probes the dynamics of love-hate.
Nothing else in the performance quite reached these levels. In the case of Scott's trio, bland, shapeless choreography was the culprit. With Paine's "Duet," Zuckerman's account of Lerman's "Journey" solo and the concluding duet from Kahn's "Dashes and Bolts," it was more a matter of technical and interpretive insufficiency. Zuckerman and Rea are engaging, able performers, but they don't have the control and polish to do full justice to choreography designed for more skilled or charismatic executants. Tailor-made new work will probably continue to be their best bet.