Except for the saxophone cradled in front of her, its mouthpiece clamped between her lips, Amy Denio could have been mistaken for a modern dancer. She lay on the rehearsal hall floor with her legs stretched in front of her - one knee up - her weight resting on one elbow in a come-hither pose.
As the three other members of the Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet backed her up, Denio finished her solo and slowly rose to her feet, playing all the while.
Meanwhile, four members of the Pat Graney Company, a Seattle modern dance troupe, ran, hurtled and sometimes slunk around Denio and the other musicians. Later on, in a move that might be called pirouetting saxophones, each dancer lifted one of the sax players - while they were playing - and slowly turned her around.
The collaboration between the Tiptons - a jazz-oriented, all-women quartet that's been a favorite for several years at hip venues like the OK Hotel - and Pat Graney, one of Seattle's most innovative modern dance choreographers, will be premiered Thursday, Friday and next Sunday at Meany Theater at the University of Washington. The 40-minute piece is called "Sax House," after a movement composed by Marjorie deMuynck, one of the Tiptons. And judging from rehearsals last week, it is likely to appeal to anyone who likes saxophones, modern dance, jazz or performance art.
Ranch Romance, the nationally acclaimed country swing group based in Seattle, will also be on the program. Ranch Romance will perform the music to the evening's other dance piece, "Jesus Loves the Little Cowgirls." The piece, choreographed by Graney, was performed once in 1988 at On The Boards in Seattle but not with live music. It is, according to Graney, a piece about Texas, the Western movie genre, drill teams, violence and country Western music.
The collaborations with Ranch Romance and The Tiptons are a first for Graney, who says she has always wanted to work with live music. She says the two musical groups were natural choices because Graney's group and The Tiptons have both been regulars at On the Boards, and Graney is an acquaintance of Jo Miller, leader of Ranch Romance.
With some sections of "Sax House" still being choreographed last week, Graney and Denio said that trying to incorporate the musicians into the movement has been a particularly challenging effort.
"Sometimes it's very hard to move around," said Denio, "because we can't use our arms for balance like dancers can." Graney said she has had to experiment with how much movement the musicians can make while playing. "In the end, it has all become quite subtle," she said.
In sections being rehearsed last week, the slowly moving sax players, whose movement often consisted of measured steps across the floor, were a sharp contrast to the dancers, whose movement frequently involved diving onto the floor and running at top speed across the stage. Graney is known for the athleticism of her choreography - she choreographed the "Pier 62/63" performance at the 1990 Goodwill games that included gymnasts and drill teams - and "Sax House," despite some sultry partner dancing, includes plenty of movement that would look appropriate in a gymnastics routine.
"Creating the movement has been a long process," Graney said. "I've tried to match the moods of the music with the movement. Some of it is very film noir, '40s stuff, and the cigarette thing developed as a joke," she added - a reference to a dead-panned smoking gesture that is frequently repeated. "To me, humor, which is always important, is woven throughout the piece."
Denio arranged the score for "Sax House," which includes original music and a few jazz standards, including "Harlem Nocturne" and "Black Coffee." Music for "Jesus Loves the Little Cowgirls" is a pastiche of songs by country Western singers The Judds and the late Patsy Cline, and pop singer Belinda Carlisle.
A Chicago native who grew up in Florida and earned a dance degree at the University of Arizona, Graney has been working in Seattle since 1980, and considers Seattle her home. And at a time when dance groups nationally are finding it increasingly difficult to finance new works and take them on the road, Graney and her company are managing to perform around the nation.
In June, Graney's company performed one of her newest works, "Faith," at the prestigious Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass. The company also has performed in Boston, Atlanta, Japan and the United Kingdom.