TAO Dance Theater defines a different grammar of being: in a stark universe demarcated by a white floor and black walls, artistic director Tao Ye creates a world that reveals itself in movement and images, establishing its own natural order; time measured in heartbeats, uncompromising, relentlessly demanding of performer and audience, and offering to all those who dare enter, moments of exquisite beauty and fathoms of force.
TAO Dance Theater was founded in 2008 by choreographer and artistic director Tao Ye, a graduate of the Chongqing Dance School, who performed with the Jin Xing Dance Group and Beijing Modern Dance Company before starting his own dance company. TAO Dance came to Israel with two works – Weight x 3 and 2, performing at the Suzanne Dellal Centre as part of Tel Aviv Dance, giving Israeli audiences an opportunity to become acquainted with contemporary dance from China. Originating in a cultural context at once familiar and yet unknown, differing both from the Western history of dance and from Chinese traditional dance, yet in communication with the international performance culture, Tao Ye’s work has a distinct creative presence.
One desires to be wary of words in describing the work of a choreographer whose work is so quintessentially physical and abstract; proceed with caution and with a willingness to take risks. I want to tell you to come empty, open – empty as the stage on which this work comes into being, empty as this page before words. Read, and then forget what you have read, come to know the thing itself – Tao Ye’s work as it will be in some other moment in time. I want to tell you that we cannot come empty, shaped and molded as we are by experience, knowledge, history, the cultural air that surrounds us and enters our bodies with each breath. Everything we see and feel is determined by the weight of the past; the future takes off from this moment between, the disappearing, weightless present.
Existence itself, our hold on it tenuous and fierce, plays out before me when viewing Tao Ye’s work. The choreographer relies on the unerring technique and abilities of the dancers, and they do not disappoint, imbuing the performance with a mesmerizing sense of discovery.
Weight x 3 is performed to a soundtrack of American composer Steve Reich’s Drumming Part IV (1970 – 71) and Piano Phase (1967). Reich, to my mind one of the most exciting contemporary composers, creates patterns of layered sound, in different combinations of live performance and recordings, employing repetition and with identical lines of music, moving in and out of sync, creating a palimpsest of sound. The delicate chime and incessant beat of Drumming Part IV interacts with the first part of Weight x 3: Lei Yang and Gong Xingxing, in fluid robes that cast lines of dance on the air, join hands through the depths of their wide sleeves, the deft movements of their feet light, heads bending from side to side, an image of carefree, blithe spirits, seeds drifting on the wind; a dance of interdependence, even when they do not touch, they are connected. The repetition intensifies the experience, as the movements change and develop, suggesting underlying forces and darker depths.
The darkness becomes visible in the second part, performed by Duan Ni. Dressed in black, her back almost bare, on a dark stage, she turns, rimmed in light, turning and twirling a thin beam of light, a wand, a weapon, in an alluring performance of virtuosity and power.
All this was a prelude to 2, a work so unexpected in its form, requiring an almost painful degree of concentration from the viewer. Painful might seem to be an odd word to use in relation to a dance performance. Creators in any performance art are always working with and against the expectation of entertainment, the delivery of something comprehensible and contained, from artist to audience. Yet there is also the possibility of something different, works of art that do not necessarily satisfy the viewer in a conventional sense of the word, which I might venture to define as providing a confirmation of expectations, but rather, confound expectations, creating an experience from which the viewer cannot walk away unmarked. If we do not come open, then we close ourselves to the possibility of that experience.
Original music by Xiao He, and costumes by Li Min are an integral part of this work which radically shifts the visual frame of reference and the center of gravity. Performed by Duan Ni and Tao Ye (not the choreographer), the piece opens with the two dancers lying flat on their stomachs, feet towards the audience, their heads facing the back of the stage, with no discernible movement for what feels like an eternity. One is immersed, involuntarily, in an entirely different world of movement and sensation. As one cannot come empty, I saw it as the kind of landscape one might find in Beckett: minimalist, replete with suppressed urges, strong emotions, an acute awareness of detail and the poetics of repetition. Working in infinite configurations of movement, on the ground, low to the ground, creating shapes with their bodies that tantalize the imagination, sculptural, acrobatic, alien creatures with pliant, sinuous spines and evocatively articulate limbs, yet achingly human and vulnerable.