at the Civic Theatre

February 20-24

Watching ISO dance is like watching classic Saturday-morning cartoons: no intellectual pretensions, no political agenda, no tugging on the heartstrings; just entertaining high jinks and slapstick taking whack after powerful whack at your funny bone. Actually, watching ISO is more fun: they’re real, not celluloid, and three of the dances (plus the encore) feature real, live music by the Bobs, an a cappella quartet with a finely developed performance style all its own.

Captain Tenacity is especially funny if you remember Elmer Fudd singing, “Kill the wabbit. Kill the wabbit. Kill the wabbit.” Captain Tenacity has the same posturing, the same wild gesticulating, and some of the same music (the score is by Theatre of Blood). Choreographed and performed by Ashley Roland, Captain Tenacity begins with a strongman walk and a salute so sharp it pulls her right off balance. Leaping, whirling, and running around the performance space and up the back wall, Roland eats up the stage. She throws her body at the wall: she sticks. Velcroed there, her movement suggests Superman, Mighty Mouse, and every other cartoon hero that flies.

We all dream of flying; choreographers, too. In Night Thoughts, choreographed by ISO creators Daniel Ezralow, James Hampton, Morleigh Steinberg, and Roland, the performers do indeed fly. Sure, it’s a gimmick–just as lighting, wires, stage machinery, and dancing on pointe were gimmicks in ballet’s Romantic era–but who cares? The effect is magical.

Wearing fluttery, diaphanous white dressses (and the harnesses of the stage machinery), Roland and Sheila Lehner hover over two still men, John Gallagher and Gregory Hancock. The women’s hands reach for, caress, and cup the men’s ears as if to whisper to them. The men stand, arms folded, at first unaware of the women drifting over and around them, eventually propelling them. The image is a neat twist on the romantic artist and his muse: for all her special gift, the ability to fly, she can only drift and hover without him; she needs him to reach her full potential–the astonishing swoops to the floor, the huge aerial circles. When Roland and Lehner are alone onstage and the light is very dim, it’s almost possible to overlook the harnesses: their dresses and the ropes stand out in a wash of purple, suggesting auras and rays of light more than any kind of trick.

In the final quartet of Night Thoughts, all four cavort in the air and on the ground. The movement vocabulary is familiar–the dramatic leaps of ballet, the bumps and risky partnering of contact improvisation, gymnastic flips–but the effect is entirely foreign. So much of dance has to do with gravity–giving in to gravity, exploiting gravity, resisting gravity, pretending gravity does not exist–that seeing dancers immune to gravity is shocking; our kinesthetic sense is turned upside down and inside out. They look like human beings, but they’re not: they’ve escaped what our own sense experience tells us is omnipresent and omnipotent. Nothing with such transformative power is ever just a gimmick.

ISO is the quintessential 80s group: the four dancers’ fine-tuned physiques epitomize the fitness ethos, and the dances’ imagery reeks of Reagan-era conservatism. The difference between the women and the men is more a matter of height than muscular strength or stamina. Instead of falling into stereotypic dance “types”–a jumper, a turner, an adagio dancer, an allegro dancer–all four are extraordinarily precise and athletic. Bad Beat shows some of the possibilities inherent in their similarity. Very little of this series of duets resembles traditional partnering: Roland and Lehner are just as likely to hurl themselves at their partners as to be lifted by them; they can, and do, lift the men as easily as the men do them. Quirky, rapid unison movement tests them all, and they all shine equally.

And yet two repeated images stand out: the man holds the woman off at arm’s length, his hand on her forehead, using his only physical advantage–his height–to control her; and when the dancers change partners, the movement–an entrance, a sequence of forearm-to-forearm bumps, and a substitution and exit–suggests tag-team wrestling. How very ironic that a dance displaying four such androgynous virtuosos in so much uniform unison movement suggests conflict, and that the conflict is always between a man and a woman. And is a wrestler the only theatrical image appropriate for a woman with muscles, strength, and endurance?

In DNA, mustard-colored retro shirts and baggy trousers hide Gallagher’s and Roland’s muscles. With a movement vocabulary drawing on social dancing, a score by the Hi-Lo’s, and choreographic motifs of grabbing and eluding, DNA is an affable, stereotypical treatment of relationship. The lyrics suggest they’re buddies; the choreography suggests they’re lovers. Never mind that she outdances him, that she usually has the upper hand, and that she carries him offstage at the end, she does it all with good-natured trickery: ducking away, faking him out, worrying his trouser leg with her teeth. The title suggests that biology is destiny in relationships: what a woman can’t take by force, she’ll take with guile.

The movement of DNA and Bad Beat has all the rhythmic complexity and subtle, shifting dynamics of MTV choreography and aerobics workouts. While the movement of I Scare Myself is still vibrant and athletic, it also incorporates moments of suspension, of quiet, even of tenderness. The duet is an unambiguous, nostalgic treatment of heterosexual relationship: engine noise, two sets of headlights, the slamming of car doors, Hancock’s sleeveless T-shirt, Roland’s circle skirt–I Scare Myself evokes pre-AIDS days of cruising, making out, and making it.

Roland and Hampton’s choreography for I Scare Myself is more sexual than the choreography for the other dances: spread-legged lifts, for instance, the woman’s thighs wrapped around the man’s torso. But it is also more sensual: she playfully insinuates her head into the crook of his arm, he slowly lowers his head to rest between her ribs. In this dance sensuality blunts the showy, hard edges of ISO’s athleticism; Roland and Hancock look more like people, less like superheroes, cartoons, or Nautilus machines.

The detachment of ISO’s performance style makes their collaboration with the Bobs a study in contrasts. The Bobs don’t just sing: they create characters, stage personas. The Bobs’ theatricality and ISO’s abstraction cohabit uncomfortably in this concert. In Come Together, the musicians are obviously having a good time–tapping their feet, smiling, snapping fingers, shimmying just a little–while the dancers are impassive, entirely engrossed in the flood of small-scale gesture and generous movement. In Helter Skelter, the dancers are just occasional body parts glimpsed through shiny stretch fabric; the Bobs, when the material pulls far enough to reveal their heads and shoulders, are recognizably human. In Fever, Roland is an inhumanly flexible technician; Janie Bob Scott takes on the character of a classic torch singer. ISO flattens experience; the Bobs exaggerate it.