Not since "Mary Poppins," in which Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke frolicked with a flock of animated penguins, or "Anchors Aweigh," which featured Gene Kelly trading steps with a nimble cartoon mouse, has there been anything like Kathy Rose and her chorus line of hand-drawn Egyptian lovelies.
What separates Rose from those earlier fleet-footed luminaries is the fact that she dances live -- and very much in sync -- with the animated Nefertitis and other creations on the screen behind her.
Isn't it difficult to move coherently while bathed in a sea of blinding light?
"It's very hard to keep your balance," explains the gifted animator-choreographer-performer. "The projector light encloses you totally, and it can literally make you nauseous."
The effect, however, is worth the discomfort. When this tall, reed-thin woman with the Cleopatra coiffure and ultra-angular features begins undulating with her cartoon look-alikes, it's definitely magic time. "Primitive Movers" is what Rose calls this particular work, and the title conjures a wealth of images and connotations. With their crooked arms and knees, two-dimensional walk and ancient priestess allure, Rose and company could easily have slid off some centuries-old urn. But that's only one part of the "primitive" whole. The choreography itself is primitive -- repetitive, flat, ceremonial -- and the accompanying electronic score is almost tribal in feeling.
"I've derived much of my inspiration from Martha Graham," says Rose, who will perform tonight at the Washington Project for the Arts as part of an "Evening of Exchange" program titled "Directions in the Interdisciplinary Arts." "Not so much from Graham's movement, but from photographs taken of her early in her career." She cites one particular Graham solo, "Lamentation," in which the choreographer performs while encased in a tube of constricting jersey fabric. "People don't realize that she did most of that dance without moving off her seat," marvels Rose. "She looked so stylized, almost like a sculpture."
Rose's multimedia extravaganzas grow out of other sources as well. "Certainly I've been influenced by the set designs for Diaghilev's Russian ballet, and by silent movies, especially those Cecil B. de Mille spectaculars." An "addicting" African dance class offered by the Alvin Ailey school has also had a profound effect.
"I've taken it for three years," she says. "The first time it wiped me out completely. It's Dunham technique, very pure, stressing a simple line and a flat back. The movements are very idiosyncratic, and very graphic, with everyone moving across the floor in unison. And the live drumming is fantastic."
As a child, Rose remembers, "I watched mouse cartoons. I also studied ballet, and I always liked to draw." She went on to major in filmmaking at the Philadelphia College of Art, where she met and performed with three former students of the German Expressionist choreographer Mary Wigman. Her experience with these dancers, and an ever-increasing awareness of all movement around her, inspired her to devote herself to animation. She received an MFA degree from the California Institute of the Arts, and subsequently created more than 10 award-winning animated shorts.
"Most of my films evolve from line-oriented drawings on paper," she says. "Most are personal fantasies, nonnarrative in nature, but very fluid. One thing leads to the next, rather like how a dream unfolds."
It was in one of these shorts, "Pencil Booklings," that Rose first appeared alongside her hand-rendered creations. As she tells it, however, her screen relationship with these fanciful characters was less than amicable.
"They didn't want me to be in the film with them," Rose says in a perfectly rational voice, "so they drove me out onto the stage."