Novel Hall, Taipei, Taiwan; March 28, 2014

David Mead

TAO Dance Theater in '4'.  Photo © Fan Xi (courtesy Novel Hall-新舞台)

TAO Dance Theater in ‘4’.
Photo © Fan Xi (courtesy Novel Hall-新舞台)

TAO Dance Theater (陶身體劇場) has garnered an impressive reputation internationally since its founding by dancers Tao Ye (陶冶) and Wang Hao (王好) just six years ago. That’s partly down to the fact that they present something different from the conservative and, quite frankly, dated modern or contemporary dance that emanates from China; and partly due to the fact that they are very, very good at what they do.

Tao believes that conventional titles for works are limiting in the sense that they create preconceptions that limit dancers’ minds as they make and perform dance, and audience’s minds as they watch it. Numbers, he says, while concrete concepts in themselves, do not limit thoughts in the same way. He probably has a point, although the lack of even an overt theme or subtext other than the movement itself doesn’t, of course, stop our minds making associations or finding meaningful imagery anyway. You start to see, or at least imagine, things. For what it’s worth, in “4”, I saw birds and imagined them both walking and swooping aloft. In “2”, I saw a discussion or exchange, albeit one in movement rather than through speech.

In “4” the four dancers move as a pack. They occasionally part a little, but always come back, always stay in a diamond formation, regardless of any number of changes of direction, and never, ever touch. It’s non-stop with everything, and I really do mean everything, is in unison. The timing is remarkable. The group is driven, pulled and pushed around the stage as if by some invisible force.

A never-changing movement vocabulary, formation and constant unison sounds like a recipe for boredom. Yet, somehow, Tao and the dancers draw you in. In their identical baggy outfits of blue-grey tops and black trousers, with black masks covering head and face that further removes any semblance of individuality, they look like beings from another world; human yet not quite human. Not only do they move non-stop around the stage, every part of their bodies seems to be in constant motion too. Everything seems to come from the shoulders, in turn causing the torso and hips in particular to roll and swerve. Limbs fly frequently in huge arcs. Walking or running is always performed low, with the planted wide and knees always bent deeply. There are occasional suggestions of martial arts, but always only briefly.

TAO Dance Theater in '2'. Photo © Matthew G. Johnson (courtesy Novel Hall - 新舞台)

TAO Dance Theater in ‘2’.
Photo © Matthew G. Johnson (courtesy Novel Hall – 新舞台)

There’s more grey in “2”, this time of the green-grey variety. Instead of going with the force, as in “4”, this time Tao and Duan Ni (段妮) seem to be fighting something that refuses to let them escape from the floor. No matter how hard they try, a limb or whatever falls back to ground, usually with a resounding thud. Although they never achieve total freedom, increasingly they release themselves from whatever is binding them to the ground, and the dance takes on more of a conversation. It doesn’t quite have the mesmerising effect of “4” but, again, it is surprisingly absorbing despite its minimalist nature.

Both “2” and “4” feature music by Chinese indie-folk-rock composer Xiao He (小河), that incorporates piano, guitar, double-bass, voice in various forms, electronic screeches, environmental sounds and more. He is a real soul mate and his compositions fit like a glove.

The following evening the company danced “5”, in which the five dancers move as an ever-changing mass as they roll around the floor; and “6”, the latter recently reviewed from Umea, Sweden in these pages by Maggie Foyer.