at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

February 20-25

People don’t like to be told they shouldn’t have been enjoying themselves–especially if they thought they were having a good time. So I’m sorry, but I think everyone who cheered ISO and the Bobs at the Civic Center last week was shortchanged.

Not by the Bobs–they gave full measure. The a cappella songsters–Joe Bob Finetti (standing in for Gunnar Bob Madsen), Richard Bob Greene, Janie Bob Scott, and Matthew Bob Stull–have good material and perform it well. In fact their witty lyrics and sure voices made the music-only portions of the evening the most enjoyable part. But ISO–made up of Daniel Ezralow, Jamey Hampton, Ashley Roland, and Sheila Lehner (filling in for Morleigh Steinberg)–offered mostly snippets of silly theatrical illustration and pointless Pilobolean images.

This two-hour show, as far as I could tell, went nowhere. Twenty different segments–eight of music only, five of dance only, and seven that were arguably both–covered subjects ranging from marriage to superheroes to Frankenstein. No one segment lasted more than five or ten minutes, and few showed any connection with any other.

Now, someone could say that I missed the point–this was New Vaudeville, it was supposed to be fun. But I find that boredom interferes with the recreational process. This was too fast-moving to be boring, you say. Well, it was fast-moving, but then so is Sesame Street. Most of the dance segments, despite their brevity, lost my attention long before they finished.

It may be that ISO has premises I find difficult to accept. The opener, “In the Beginning,” fairly announces that this is disposable, disaffected dance. We first hear the rattling of a huge sheet of paper being blown by random stage breezes. As the Philip Glass music swells, the dancers slash the paper and step magnificently through the slits, and the mock heroism of it all lets us know that this show is going to be ironic and very, very hip. The closing number, “My Shoes,” confirms that impression: while the Bobs sing “My shoes are on top of the world,” all eight performers march around the stage with victorious gusto. Of course, the lyrics are tautological, meaningless–everyone’s shoes are on top of the world–so the performers’ air of celebration is self-consciously ludicrous. In true Letterman style, they adopt a persona and then wink at us about how silly it is.

I have a hard time with performers who hold themselves aloof even from their own performance. It’s a scaredy-cat way to handle the stage: “Oh, you didn’t like that? Well, that wasn’t me anyway.” To be fair to ISO, they do occasionally engage in an easy, broad social criticism, but it doesn’t go far. One example of this is “Temptation,” in which Ezralow plays a greasy preacher so tempted by a sexy nun in an off-the-shoulder, miniskirted habit that he goes up in smoke. Ezralow shouts out something about Jim and Tammy and Jesse Helms, so we’ll know that this is a jibe against hypocrites. But the Bakkers are too easy a target. And the dance’s point–that repression produces even greater sin–simply buys into the Stop ‘n’ Shop moralists’ point of view. “Temptation” has an adolescent’s perspective on sin and sexuality, an adolescent’s hatred of repressive grown-ups.

Another big disappointment was how seldom the musicians and dancers really performed together. Live music enlivens dance–gives a sense of serendipity. How will the dancers and musicians respond to each other’s rhythm and phrasing? But here, many of the dance numbers–“I Do,” “Linguini Arms,” “Captain Tenacity,” “DNA”–are performed to canned, non-Bobs music. When the Bobs are onstage with ISO–in “Psycho Killer,” “Temptation,” “Rubber Band”–the choreography tends to be simple and obvious and is often in unison: the dancers march, skip, or mime to illustrate lyrics or tell a story. The lack of any real marriage between ISO and the Bobs made me wonder whether their union wasn’t just a marketing ploy–each group doubles its audience.

ISO is descended from Momix, which descended from Pilobolus, so it wasn’t surprising to see some fungal dances: dancers in strange contortions, using strange costumes and props to create shapes at once human and inhuman. But these dances were also disappointing. “Linguini Arms” looks at what would happen if two dancers wore costumes with really long, stretchy arms and legs. The answer? Not much. One of the more interesting illusions–the dancers shake their dangling sleeves so they’re like flickering snakes writhing in the air–goes on for too long and to no purpose. The dancers’ cat’s cradle ends up being less interesting to observe than the game is to play. The “illusion” that the arm is lifting the leg by its long sock is neither interesting nor well done, and it’s repeated endlessly in “Rubber Band.”

The only dance of illusion that works is “Light of a Beautiful World.” Two women dancers in slings suspended by (nearly invisible) wires hover and twirl over the two men’s heads–the women never touch the ground. Especially when they’re hanging upside-down, with their gauzy long gowns bound around their ankles, they’re like Raphaelesque angels or Victorian succubi. It’s a curious, enticing, sacred and profane image, but even here some effects are carried on too long or go nowhere. The women are tossed in astounding high arcs back and forth over the men’s heads–we’re not used to dancers’ movements being so huge, and it’s great. But these arcs are repeated too many times, and they don’t have the clear musical or dramatic function that something so stupendous should.

The only satisfying dance was “DNA.” Ezralow and Roland’s duet, to 40s-sounding music by the Hi-Lo’s, is not only easy and light but genuinely surprising. I particularly liked the dance’s softness–a little soft-shoe routine; slow, soft shoulder rolls forward; soft hands held dangling at waist height. Ezralow and Roland (who jointly choreographed “DNA”) have a real rapport–with a slightly hostile, competitive edge that adds spice. And Ezralow is a wonderful dancer, a big, softly springy Pierrot who can surprise you with his sudden precision, his acts of will. Sure, he can roll off a log, but he can also stop on a dime.

I left this concert thinking, What a shame. What a waste. The Bobs’ limpid singing is a pleasure, but there’s no chemistry in the ISO-Bobs combination. Someone needs to give ISO some direction. Then ISO and the Bobs performing together might be something to see.