Monday, July 30, 2012

Tao Dance Theater—Primal and Essential

Tao Ye and Duan Ni. 2012 photo by Peggy Jarrell Kaplan, courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts
Tao Dance Theater happens to be based near Beijing, but as far as its relation to either Chinese dance—or European or American dance, for that matter—it occupies its own galaxy. Choreographer Tao Ye presented two dances at Alice Tully Hall in the 2012 Lincoln Center Festival, 4 and 2, describing the number of dancers. The company performed in last year's Fall for Dance and was one of the more intriguing New York debuts; this run lived up to ensuing expectations. 

Tao eschews standard forms of dance, instead carefully reading and exploring the body from the inside out. He strips movement to its fundamentals, shorn of excess, leaving primal, essential movement. Voluminous costumes by Li Min have more in common with martial arts uniforms than the usual costumes worn in dance, and yet despite the drapes and folds of fabric, don't obscure the tensile strength of the body. Tao employs a great deal of floor work, and the garments probably help to protect the joints and add a softness to the movement quality.

In 4, the performers wear chambray smocks, genie pants, and somewhat sinister masks. Duan Ni, Wang Hao, Xie Xin, and Lei Yan move as one, yet with individuality. Arrayed in a diamond shape, they never break from position even as they revolve in their own individual orbits. The torso ripples and convulses powerfully, almost like an octopus, guiding the legs in one direction, or led by the head tilting sideways. Hands are held in fists for the most part, never decorative, nor manifestations of perceived grace. And yet the movement is so much of the human body, emanating from inside out, that it is fundamentally beautiful, organic, pure. The rhythmic, organized phrases have a productive quality, as if the dancers were weaving invisible patterns. As the lights dim, they continue to weave, receding from sight.

Duan Ni and Tao Ye. Photo: Andrea Mohin 
At the start of 2, Tao and Duan, dressed in olive drab fitted tops and voluminous pants, lie like bear pelt rugs, feet toward us. They're still long enough to lull the audience into nervous chatter even as white noise fills the air. They begin to move in fits and starts, gradually pulling off the floor but rarely higher than sitting on their calves, legs folded beneath them. All body parts other than the obvious become supportive: particularly shoulders, rib cages, and heads. What might seem to be awkward positions for humans take on a beauty evocative of other animal species. (Try sitting on the insides of your thighs, knees fully bent, and arch back as far as you can. Or rather, don't try it.) They move across the stage mostly without walking, and when they do get on their feet, they're in full plié and waddle like ducks. 

While they move together in bursts, there's no beat to follow in the varied, abstract soundscape by Xiao He, who also created the chant-filled music for 4. And though clearly in tune with one another, they touch perhaps twice, and only by bumping shoulders, not emotively. The trajectory of 2 does seem to follow their evolution from inert slugs to more expressive, sentient beings. Gravity is their prime constraint, and it's a heavy one, but it certainly doesn't constrain Tao's creativity.

This exercise in endurance for the dancers (and for some of the audience who exited before the end) also defied the norm with several minutes of music playing in darkness during the presumed finale. The pair eventually appeared before us, eyes closed, feet apart, inscrutable. Their inward focus didn't waver until they opened their eyes slowly and someone from the audience urged a bouquet on them as cheers erupted, breaking the spell that had already cast its magic.

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