Theater

Feet Accompli

Two nude dancers pace ritualistically toward an offstage light, their bodies breathtakingly painted by tattoo artist George Long. It takes hours to perfect these full-body tattoos before each performance, and you can only imagine the loving care Long must give to each curlicue that encircles the cheeks of the dancers' beautiful behinds.

This is just the opening image of choreographer Pat Graney's sensational new dance Tattoo. She earned her dance degree at the University of Arizona and likes to perform here whenever she can. She makes her second appearance at Gammage Auditorium on Tuesday, March 6, stopping on her way back to her Seattle base from Tattoo's Chilean tour.

Graney is to American choreography what Meryl Tankard is to Australian. Both have a mordant, biting wit that drives the movement, the look and the sound of their work; imprinting them, so to speak, with identifiable teeth marks. If you loved Tankard's Furioso a couple of years back at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, you'll love Graney's Tattoo.

Tattoo opened in the maritime city of Seattle in January 2000 with a very Puget sound -- all strung-out sonar chords and depth charge pings by Bessie Award-winning composer Amy Denio. The pings soon accelerate into birdsong, then radio short waves gone awry, before arriving at accordion music. Two new loinclothed and tattooed women enter, dancing with wild abandon among dinosaur bones by visual artist Marilyn Lysohir.

Bent over from the waist, their long hair covers their knees. They untangle it to reveal their faces, and the scene soon shifts to three little girls in party dresses. They walk like animated dolls, heel to toe, heel to toe, then in a slo-mo hopscotch, their tattoos showing through the sheer fabric. For a moment, they ominously break into the earlier primitive dance.

Replacing them onstage are five schoolgirls in white short-sleeve blouses and black minis, ankle socks and spiked heels. Industrial clanging, maddening as the noise of a Seattle cannery or oil drill, accompanies their staccato, drill-like dance. In one of the funniest bits, two dancers wear one boot each, and what looks like a jump rope turns out to be shoelaces. Or are they?

Graney's movement vocabulary would fill an Oxford English Dictionary of dance. It's inexhaustible, yet familiar. Her keen eye for childlike gestures turned ominously inside out frequently had the audience giggling in recognition. Two girls mugging in a mirror morphs into a big dance for five that echoes the earlier step-on-a-crack-break-your mother's-back, then slips between a dark sliding tango for five and an ostinato fake flamenco.

Dancer Carla Barragan draws an oil spill on the stage, skidding around on it. She strolls oleaginously away in white don't-fuck-me shoes.

Out come dancers in red amplified tutus, bumptiously stomping in black combat boots. Designer/composer Ellen Fullman wired the tutus to devices that look like spurs so the dancers control the sound by playing the wires that connect them to the tutus.

At just about this time, you may feel gorged on this rich Dadaist banquet, this terrifying and tender view of the passage from girlhood to womanhood, from primitive to civilized. Graney calls it "the imprint of cultural history that is tattooed on people's minds." It's here that Graney clears the groaning board, and, like any good hostess, offers one last tidbit you'll gladly swallow.

Glorious curtains of sand spill dreamily from the fly space. The dancers slip off their blouses and become altogether mythic -- women of the dunes blindly building civilization while brushing away the sands of time. Their tattooed backs evoke brands, concentration camp numbers, Japanese pillow-talk women. Their movements graduate from hardship to the quiet triumph of survival.

Tattoo's tour ends in May at New York's The Kitchen, presented by Dance Theater Workshop, which co-commissioned it through its Bessie Schonberg/First Light commissioning program and Seattle's On the Boards.

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Merilyn Jackson