Writing about four duets by people who have known each other for about a week feels like putting up scaffolding and calling it home. But Mira Treatman’s construction process in her Philly Theatre Week rendition of Duets by Strangers might be just as fruitful to watch as a finished product.
Treatman gathered seven artists of various disciplines for the latest incarnation of Duets by Strangers: a workshop/performance event that pairs two people with a few getting-to-know-you exercises, then tasks them with making a piece together, to be shown the public the week after.
I participated in Treatman’s previous round of the exercise back in December. While some pairings chose to create some set material together, others (like me and my partner) opted to see what happened in the moment of performance, without any discussion between workshop and the show. This evening’s performances followed a similar suite.
Dancing in the negative
I noticed the brightly colored film projector on the floor of the dance space even before Shannon Brooks and Jonathan Stein (one of my thINKingDANCE colleagues) began. After a long, luxurious roll across the floor toward one another, Brooks tapped the projector on with a plunk and it sputtered images on the wall across, sometimes punctuated by the silhouette of Brooks’s nose or Stein’s curving arm. The film was in negative, making it a blur of white with the occasional human form emerging and melting back in, putting it in contrast with the partners’ toppling bodies as they weaved through the charcoal duskiness.
When the film ran all the way through and the projector made sudden chirps in protest, Brooks slipped away from the duet of weight-sharing and legs askance to tend to the machine, leaving Stein to roll across the opposite wall while the film refused to roll back onto the wheel. Eventually the images of the body began again, and Stein and Brooks found their way back to one another.
Pamela Hetherington and Simi Toledano followed with a theater-based duet that was creatively staged, yet lacked self-awareness. A laundry line dotted with mementos of love (a valentine heart, letters and photographs, a pink scarf) and a line of fairy lights served as the very literal divide between the two “roommates” as they sang, decorated for a party, and fought rather inexplicably to Lady Gaga’s “You and I.” My best guess as to the premise was that Hetherington’s character was secretly in love with her roommate, unable to divulge her feelings as Toledano’s character dated an unseen man. The dialogue lacked depth, and I would have preferred a stronger confrontation between the two beyond just yelling “you and I” back and forth at the climactic moment.
As dulcet operatic tones crooned from the speakers, Treatman herself ran back and forth across the room, alternating the lights to illuminate one side of the room, then the other, but never the stage itself. By the time Vitche-Boul Ra entered, a mass of oversized clothing items crawling slowly, I knew not to expect anything that happened next to make sense, and delightfully so. Ra’s exuberant confidence was expertly balanced by Treatman’s supportive presence; Ra rolled languidly along the ground while telling two audience members to turn around and see the bored-looking person sitting behind them (admittedly, this person did look totally over it) while Treatman snapped photos on her phone encased in a McDonald’s fries case.
Feminists at the barre?
Dawn Pratson and Maddie Rabin tittered apologies back and forth as they fished legwarmers out of bags onstage and warmed up at a ballet barre. They apologized with lighthearted self-deprecation, rolling their eyes at themselves.
Pratson flatly ignored Rabin as she pleasantly looked over the barre at her and prattled, “I’m sorry, what was your name again? I’m sorry, what was it? I don’t think I caught your name. I’m sorry!” After pliés and more atonement, Pratson glared wryly at us and remarked, “I’m so sorry our fourth wall is so thick in this piece!”
What was perhaps a statement on why women feel the need to constantly apologize (expertly punctuated with the rigidity of ballet) lost some of its wit as the imploring became increasingly personal and referenced a vague past we were not privy too. However, I still let out a mirthful laugh when, as the two were removing the barre to close out the final duet, they banged it into an audience member’s chair and shrieked a true, “I’m SO sorry!”
What, When, Where
Duets by Strangers. Created by Mira Treatman. Through February 15, 2019, at 954 Dance Movement Collective, 954 N. 8th Street, Philadelphia. miratreatman.com