By Merilyn Jackson

 After 18 years on the boards, Brian Sanders, artistic director of JUNK, showed thematic maturity with last year's Live Arts smash, Sanctuary. This year, Sanders hews to a morbid theme in this self-produced Fringe work, a ghoulishly touching show prompted by recent deaths of people close to him. If part of grief is healing and part of healing is laughter, then Sanders puts the nail in grief's coffin.

Part of Sanders' genius lies in finding the right venue. For Dancing Dead, he's in an old factory sub-basement rigged with roping and large squares of real turf, dimly lit by Terry Smith. Sanders, a crotchety old cemetery caretaker, does his rounds on skates or a rickety bike, pulling Connor Senning from a mound of dirt where he'd been lying long before the large audience entered.

The fine dancers (in addition to Senning and Sanders, they are Leah Chilcutt, Gunnar Clark, Theodore Fatcher, Shelby Joyce, John Luna, Sinead O'Neill and Billy Robinson) wear shredded bits of clothing by Jill Keys and fairly drip from the rafters, cricking their joints noisily as if long past their expiration dates. Once grounded on the sod, they droop listlessly, enfeebled movements ending in open-mouthed half-twists and falls. Becoming more animated, they engage in  bellicose belly bumps and thwacking, horizontal leaps.

I've seen parts of the work over the last year, and Sanders' ironic use of sentimental '70s songs had me cracking up, but seeing the whole nearly reduced me to tears at the most tender moments. When six dancers appear high up on the ledges of two pillars languidly looping their bodies in risky poses, the others hold them safe.   I don't want to give away all the bits, but if anyone could put the fun back in funereal it's Sanders -- always laughing at life's punch line, death. With him, no good pun ever goes unheeded.

$25. 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. 9/3, 10 and 17, 7 p.m. 9/4 and 11, 8 p.m. 9/8 and 15, 9 .m. 9/9 and 16. Sub-basement at 444 Lofts, 444 N. 4th St