Christian Swenson is generally so busy performing in small-town schools and theaters that he's little known in Seattle. But that wasn't always the case. In the '80s, he was locally famous for dancing around wearing a chef's hat and crustacean leggings. "I had Crab Legs," he admits, referring to his role in those unforgettable Sea Galley commercials. "That gave me a great deal of financial support, through four years of maybe 16 different versions [of the commercial]. Not having to write arts grants for most of that time was great."Rangy and good-natured, Swenson is an extraordinary improvisation triple threat (dance, singing, and movement). This summer he and two partners, clad in gorilla suits, will be appearing at festivals in Duvall, Fall City, Burien, and elsewhere as the Trash Apes, picking up garbage left by festival crowds. Most recently, he's begun experimenting with partner Liz Erber, performing at a variety of venues (they'll be at next Friday's Spin the Bottle at Annex). "We were curious how to use language in dance improv. For such a long time I've used words as nonsense sounds, and the thought of using them for meaning scared me."Swenson came to Seattle in 1978 to work as a dancer with the Bill Evans Dance Company. He felt an instant affinity with Evans: "Part of it is that he was a tall guy, so his movement style fit my body well. He also liked dramatic work, modern dance that told stories." Another draw was Evans' eclectic musical choices, everything from jazz to opera to Indian music. And thanks to his work with Evans, Swenson picked up gigs as an artist-in-residence at various schools, which have become a mainstay of his income, along with bookings through various arts councils.After leaving Evans' company, Swenson continued developing his own work as a solo artist by renting the Seattle Mime Theater, putting on music he liked, and making up moves. One early discovery was that the most exciting improvisations involved not just the body, but the eyes. "I found a great description of how Asian theater thinks of your eyes as your second spine. If you focus on yourself like musicians do, it makes dance improv seem self-involved. Where you look creates a line in space, and that creates a compelling moment." This is part of what makes his improvisations so dynamic and filled with intent—he's always acting toward something, reacting from something else.After a few years, he began to add vocalizations, drawing from blues, jazz, rock, Tuvan throat music, and just about everything else. These free-flowing performances start with a simple note and movement and grow until they're virtually symphonic, teasing around a tune or sound with an increasingly elaborate dance. It's mesmerizing, funny, and different from anything I've ever seen before—an opinion echoed by New York critics when he performed at Lincoln Center back in 1989 and 1990.Swenson also has several choreographed pieces, though not all of them are crowd-pleasers. He remembers a performance in the San Juans in which, clad in a flesh-colored "dancer's belt" (basically a loincloth), he crawled across the stage making sounds like a humpback whale. "This one couple grabbed their kids and stormed out," he remembers. In the days to come they peppered the local papers and arts organizations with complaints. "I wasn't invited back up there for a while."Less-controversial pieces include an astonishing version of Jabberwocky, in which he plays the cackling narrator, the hapless hero, and the fearsome, ferocious, grotesque monster itself, a sort of Mesozoic proto-ostrich. "Exploring the ugly, you start to find it a form of respect," he says. "The ugly never thinks of itself as ugly. Even a slug thinks of itself as beautiful." In the '90s, he got to indulge his fascination with monsters playing the mute creature in Minnesota Opera's Frankenstein, "strangling opera singers," he cheerily reminisces.Another signature piece, De-evolution, is a detailed and hilarious journey from Cro-Magnon back to proto-ape, from nose-twitching mammal to lizard, finally ending as a pair of tiny single cells, represented by his fingers, quivering in primal communication. It's a mimetic tour-de-force, the sort of star turn that again makes me wonder why he's not better known in his own hometown.
Spin the Bottle Annex Theatre, 1100 E. Pike St., 728-0933. $9. 11 p.m. Fri., June 6.