Tao Dance Theatre
'Weight x3' and '2'
by David Mead
November 11, 2011 -- Patrick Centre, Birmingham, UK
According to Tao Ye, artistic director of Tao Dance Theatre, art in Chinese contemporary society has stagnated in kitsch and stereotype, something, it has to be said, that Western audiences with their all too often set expectations of East Asian art must also bear some responsibility for. “Our bodies are adrift and there is extreme lack of physical research”, he says. The solution, he considers is to “re-discover the neglected essence” of dance and the body, and to reconnect with self and identity, so that in the “pursuit of the corporeal, our spirit becomes free.” To that end, he believes that each individual in the arts should have his own vision, attitude and perspective. There should be more independent, individual voices. That, he feels, is essential for the arts to grow.
Tao, had already showed a desire to set his own path when he co-founded his own physical performance company, Zuhe Niao, in 2004. At the time he was with Shanghai’s Jin Xing Dance Theater, have previously performed with the city’s Army Song & Dance Ensemble. Seeking more performance and dance-making opportunities, in 2006, he moved to the Beijing Modern Dance Company, but although he got opportunities to choreograph, speaking before his Birmingham performance he said that the longer he was there, the less he felt he could do what he wanted.
In China, Tao explained, people have very set standards of aesthetics and beliefs about what is considered beautiful or whatever. They like virtuosity and technique. Audiences expect dance to be representational and to understand everything they see. But, continued, that only takes you so far. My world felt ‘closed’, he said, and at odds with a feeling he has had since young that there has been some sort of spirit pushing him along a path and in a particular artistic direction. In 2008, the need to move forward was so strong that he decided to do just that and set out on his own; not an easy decision in a country where independent dance artists are very few and far between.
Although not explained in the brief programme note, “Weight x 3” started from that spiritual drive. Having left the Beijing troupe, Tao thought initially that he should be as open to as many influences as possible. In fact quite the opposite happened and he found himself looking ever more inward. The work was born out that spiritual search and of the daily four-hour commute to their rehearsal place. Every day they traced the same path back and forth as they travelled to and fro. A lot of persistence and determination was required, he said.
You can certainly see all that in the repetitions in a duet danced by Tao and Wang Hao to Steve Reich’s “Drumming Part IV”. At first it looks a little like Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s work to the same score, the dance appearing to be a reflection of the music’s shifting patterns. After a while, though, you realise that the two are not always together and sometimes separate before suddenly coming back together. The couple, on the other hand, are nearly always together. They dance in unison holding hands, letting go only to turn, yet they never look at one another. They maybe two bodies, but the timing is so perfect they seem as one. Yet there is far more to this than meets the eye initially. The opening simple phrase undergoes subtle change and becomes more complex. High kicks come out of nowhere, so powerful that they seem for a second as if they are going to hit their own heads, and when the unison turns briefly to mirroring it comes as quite a surprise.
The second section of “Weight x 3” danced featured more repetition as Duan Ni, who previously danced with Shen Wei and Akram Khan, twirled and manipulated a long staff overhead and around her. Her speed and dexterity is amazing. As a youngster Tao had followed his father and grandfather in practicing wushu and it is easy to see the connection. Another Reich score (“Piano Phase”) mirrors the action. Both seem to be in a never-ending loop. The rod caught the light and left blurred images in the mind just like a propeller blade. As with the opening section, loops in the movement slowly developed. It was certainly impressive and, initially, grabbed the attention. But think ballet for a moment. 32 fouettés done expertly looks great, but by the time you get to 320 or more, the effect starts to wear quickly. This was a little like that.
“2” goes down a different route, opening with Tao and Duan, in identical off-green robes, lying splayed out centre-stage. The first movements are small, slow and if you are not careful, easily missed. As things pick up, the couple roll and flop around the stage, occasionally rising as far as a crouch, but never to standing. The looseness of limbs is quite baby-like. They never look at each other, yet somehow they still manage to occasionally come together with identical movement to the split second. All this is in silence save for the thudding and brushing of body against floor. It is intriguing for a while, but goes on rather too long without sufficient development or variation and struggles to hold to attention.
Despite the appearance of this being a carefully created conversation, albeit of bodies rather than voices, Tao explained that it is simply about the movement and its quality. He insists there is no meaning and no story, although he added that, just because it starts from the body, that doesn’t mean to say there is nothing there, “because of course the body is already full of spiritual meanings.”
The attention is hauled back to the stage when Xiao He’s playfully anarchic soundscape of gongs, crackles, scratches, rumbles, pops and isolated chords slowly enters the scene. It seem sto spark more dynamic movement, or maybe vice-versa, or maybe the sound was the sound of the body, it was sometimes difficult to tell. It did, though, match the dance rather well. Eventually, the dancers exit and stage goes dark, leaving only the crashes and bangs of the score. They return to chanting, and after a moment’s stillness, bow formally. A simple ending to a complex piece
That Tao’s work should be full of Eastern flavour is no surprise. But when you get down to the nuts and bolts of the choreography, and his way of moving and using the body, his is some of the more interesting dance to come out of China to date. It certainly had me reflecting on it for days afterwards, and the DanceXchange deserve credit for bringing it to Birmingham. Descriptions of Tao as a “l’enfant terrible choreographer” maybe say more about the state of contemporary dance in China than it does about his work, but it’s hard to disagree with the contention that he is “one to watch”.
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