The little potted cypresses scattered around the set are the only Middle Eastern note in Israeli choreographer Inbal Pinto's "Wrapped." Look closely, though, and you'll see they're sculpted in the shape of sea horses. Cute, no?

Where much of Israeli art is decidedly sober, this hour-long romantic fantasy, which the eight-member Inbal Pinto Dance Company performed last night at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, springs exuberantly from a quirky, teasing and extremely fertile imagination. But Pinto is also a keen craftsman. "Wrapped" is tightly directed toward a single point: Gotta get me a honey!

Barely out of her twenties, Pinto is making her debut in this country. And yet any skepticism about what a little-known foreign artist was doing as part of the Kennedy Center's "America Dancing" series vanished in the opening minutes of "Wrapped."

In the first part, "Duet," two women in 1950s party dresses (Pinto and Maya Lewandowsky) are perched on a narrow red bench, tapping out rhythms with their naked toes. It's not just a beat but a conversation, as one pair of feet picks up on the other's patterns, or one foreleg coaxes the other into the dance. Soon their whole bodies get into it, with tongues clicking out a speedy pulse as arms, hands, shoulders and chins keep up.

Much of Pinto's work resembles puppetry, with mechanized movement, sharp, staccato gestures and uncooperative limbs seemingly yanked about by unseen wires. Her dancers move like windup dolls, marionettes or off-kilter ballerinas, but rarely do they possess the smoothness of flesh and blood.

Though the dance vocabulary is simple--and in a post-performance discussion Pinto said she drew on everyday movements--it's not natural. Starting with those disembodied toes, it's as if Pinto has distilled ordinary gestures into a series of tics, drained off the juice and isolated them, dissected them and reassembled them. Her creatures are human concentrates, scurrying about on a condensed search for love and community.

But though the theme is familiar, the lovelorn have never been so endearingly inane. The second part of the piece, "The Orchard," is set in a postmodern fantasy land, with its creatures inhabiting a cold, gray, boxlike set. There's a trio of stern-looking wenches in blood-red frocks, and a pair of boppy little gnomes--two dancers coiled on their haunches, as fidgety and watchful as prairie dogs. One of the earnest little guys finally gets his hands on a woman in red for a tender, bottom-grabbing duet.

The exquisitely stylized set and costumes, which Pinto also created, have a kind of exaggerated simplicity that is at once childlike and sophisticated. Everything is colorlessly blah but for occasional splashes of red. One of the weirdest and most ticklish segments is for a group of rigid, giant-size dancers--apparently on some kind of stilts, invisible under stiff, narrow-pleated skirts fashioned from paper. The joke is when they're joined by an identically dressed dancer who is half their size.

It's a wonderfully irreverent moment reminiscent of the musically wry Mark Morris, as the dancers, moving sedately to a piece of orderly choral music, start convulsing. In perfect time.

We also meet an army of dancers in short overcoats who seem vaguely threatening. Two women dancing sweetly in one dress. A giantess who boasts that--especially for us--she's just bathed in barbecued chicken.

In response to a wild drumming riff from the tap musical "Bring In 'da Noise, Bring In 'da Funk," a man and woman launch into a percussive duet of their own, slapping each other and grunting in a way that's more humorous than funky. It's decidedly unfunky, in fact, until the two start awkwardly kissing.

There's one last plaintive try at romance. As two dancers hold up a red paper backdrop painted with pink hearts, and Benny Goodman's "St. Louis Blues" adds an air of melancholy, Pinto dances a desperately yearning solo. Her legs don't go where they ought; she's tugged in different directions. Finally, she takes hold of the paper and winds herself up in it, turning into a slightly sagging pillar of solitude. But when one pink-and-red corner flips open, it's like a hopeful little flag. The search continues.

The program repeats tonight and tomorrow night.

CAPTION: In "Duet," the first section of "Wrapped," Maya Lewandowsky, left, and Inbal Pinto tap out rhythms with their toes--and soon their whole bodies join in.