Helen Rea is short, solid and dark, a dynamic ladybug of a dancer. Don Zuckerman is long and lean, his blond-brown curls and pale skin lending him a fragile, occasionally angelic look. Stand them side by side and they set up a decided contrast. But watch them move together and they become twins, kindred spirits, lovers and friends.
That's what Duets, Etc., their company of two, is all about.
"It all started off as kind of a fantasy," laughs Zuckerman when asked how they decided to form a troupe. "I had seen a dance by New York choreographer Marta Renzi and had found out she was going to be in Washington. So I said to Helen, 'Maybe we should write to her and see if she'll teach us a dance while she's down here.' Well, Marta agreed to do it . . . and eventually we were setting a time for our first concert."
It's not as if Rea and Zuckerman had been sitting around with nothing else to do. Both are longtime members of the Dance Exchange Performance Company (Rea is currently on a leave of absence) and actively involved with a senior citizens' troupe known as the Dancers of the Third Age. Each is a certified Alexander Technique therapist, administering to a number of tension-filled clients each week. Together they perform under the auspices of Young Audiences, introducing school groups to modern dance. And just now they're caught up in last-minute preparations for their concerts this weekend at the Dance Place, which will include works by Kei Takei, Sally Nash, Victoria Marks, Nancy Galeota and Liz Lerman.
"The Alexander Technique training gave us a new way to think about movement," Rea explains. "We do dances that are quite difficult, but our aim is not to make it look like work, to do the movement as cleanly and purely as possible."
Watching a run-through of their program, one sees exactly those qualities Rea decribes, and countless other layers of mood and message. In Nash's piece, Zuckerman wears a long, romantic dress and Rea a shirt, vest and trousers; as Emmylou Harris wails in the background, he plays imploring doormat to her unyielding tough. Marks' "Variations on a Triangle" sets up a torrid me'nage a trois (with guest artist Anne McDonald) replete with choreographed betrayals, trysts, slaps and desertions. And Takei's "Pine Cone Field" has the pair playing peasants through a condensed lifetime of discovery, courtship, labor and elderly repose.
So great is the intensity of these stage encounters that certain members of the audience develop their own ideas about the partners' offstage relationship.
"Kids often ask us if we're married," reports Rea.
"And we say, 'Yes, Helen's married -- to her husband," says Zuckerman. "But seriously, Helen and I have been through a lot together, and our own relationship has had a lot of dynamic range to it. And I feel like we really do use that in our dancing! When we look like we're in love with each other, we really are in love with each other. And when we look like we hate each other" -- he pauses to beam a mock-malevolent smile at his associate -- "we really hate each other!"