By Molly Glentzer, Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

Some festivals don't pack as much into a week as producer Nancy Henderek squeezes into Dance Salad, her annual three-night showcase of contemporary choreography at the Wortham Theater Center. This year, she divvied up 21 dances, 18 choreographers and nine companies from eight countries into overlapping programs. Talk about crunch time for a critic. Herewith, the first (and totally subjective) Holy Crouton Awards.

Best Program Toss: Friday's show had the best mix of high-adrenaline dance, introspective moods and comedy. It also offered two excellent works not seen Thursday or Saturday: Jo Kanamori's gripping Under the Marron Tree and Gustavo Ramirez Sansanos' edgy Chapter 9 -- not to be confused with Helen Lai's fierce and ritualistic 9 Songs.

Best Entrance: In Under the Marron Tree, a poignant, powerful solo about a person missing someone she loves (perhaps her dinner date didn't show?), dancer Rei Watanabe dropped into view from underneath the top of a large table.

Best Love Scene: Lily Tsai and Xing Liang of Hong Kong's City Contemporary Dance Company battled for each other's souls in the terrific bed scene of 356 Ways of Doing and Undoing Orientalism. He represented China's traditional heart; she was modernism and communism in one terrifyingly compact bundle. The sheets were flame-red, and the action was serious choreographic fire.

Best Twist on Tradition: The dynamic 365 Ways began with an exquisite slow-motion black-and-white video that made bodies seem one with lotus blossoms. But the best theatrics of the festival came when the City Contemporary Dance ensemble used the spears, swords, mile-long sleeves and ribbons of traditional Chinese dance in ways their ancestors never dreamed of. And what about those Chairman Mao-inspired tutu-skirts?

Best Shake-a-Leg: Jirí Kylián's Blackbird is a meditative duet full of idiosyncratic tendus, sinuous torsos and arms that practically enable the body to levitate. But I loved the little leg quivers when emotion escaped in the tiniest waves down Megumi Nakamura's legs, until she reached a hand down to stop it. (Be still, my beating leg!) Nakamura and Netherlands Dance Theater's Ken Ossola, Blackbird's original cast, danced eloquently both Friday and Saturday.

Best Crashes: There was much to love in the way Henderek juxtaposed even small elements from one piece to the next. On Friday, the gunshot sounds that sent Jacqulyn Buglisi and Donlin Foreman reeling into despair in the turn-of-the-century-influenced Sospiri had a modern echo in the music for the next dance, Kylián's sharp-angled 27'52" -- only its Dirk Haubrich score sounded like bullets breaking through glass.

Best Feathers: A tie. The huge feathered horns of the red goddesses in 365 Ways were fascinating. But so were the frumpy half-tutus of the Finnish National Ballet's Trickle Green Oak -- especially when one preening "swan" ever-so-delicately pulled up the sides of her costume to reveal its beehive-like structure.

Best Bounce: NDT III's Giocanda Barbuto, whose panniered skirt added another layer of action to the hilarious excerpt from Kylian's film Birth-Day.

Best Music to Hum on the Way Home: Nacho Duato's marvelously fluid Cor Perdut got much of its passion from Maria del Mar Bonet's Catalonian songs. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Cheryl Mann and Tobin Del Cuore really brought the music to life on Friday.

Best Movement Language: A tie. Henrique Rodahlvo's Choreography for Listening and Paul Lightfoot and Soul León's Shutter Shut were both inspired takes on talk. Without literally "translating" words into movement, they imitated the sounds with odd, funny, isolated tics of the head, hands, legs and torso.

Best Body Slams: James Nunes and Gleidson Vigne of Brazil's Quasar Companhia de Danca flew through Choreography for Listening like a couple of Slinkys on speed. Gravity, what gravity?

Best Spring Thaw: The title Trickle Green Oak doesn't translate well to English, but in Finnish it's a complete sentence about trees that run with sap in the spring. Choreographer Susanna Leinonen's four primordial creatures got the idea across through an amazingly complex blend of stiff butoh moves and thrashing ballet.

Best Running Leap: In Scene for a Man and a Woman, the Finnish National Ballet's Minna Tervamäki ran full-steam at Sami Saikkonen with her legs in a V, as if she were going to land around his waist. But their timing was a thrill; he fell backward just before impact, so that she ended up standing over him in a threatening straddle.