The Beijing-based TAO Dance Theater’s (陶身體劇場) performance at Taipei’s Novel Hall on Saturday night was an eye-opener — and not just because you had to strain your eyes to see the dancers at the start of the first piece.
And what a difference a week makes. The previous Saturday I bemoaned Zuni Icosahedron (進念二 十面體) director Mathias Woo’s (胡恩威) repetitive use of the same movements and lines — and an excess of fog that sometimes obscured the performers — in his Dream Illusion Bubble Shadow (如夢幻泡影) at the National Theater, created for Dance Forum Taipei (舞蹈空間).
However, those same elements in the hands of Chinese dancer/choreographer Tao Ye (陶冶) made for a mesmerizing show.
The program featured Tao’s most recent works, 6, which premiered on Feb. 1 in Umea, Sweden, and 5, which had its premiere in Amsterdam in July last year. In both pieces, the audience saw a unique choreographic style that clearly sets Tao apart from his contemporaries, whether Asian or Western.
6 opens in a foggy darkness — and the stage stays dark for several minutes. As your eyes struggle to make out any movement, a shift in the inky blackness hints at the dancers’ presence. Very slowly, a grayish light from a single spot begins to pierce the dark, and there are glimpses of reflections off bald pates, or a flash of a calf.
Eventually, the shape of the six dancers, lined up on a diagonal in identical black costumes, four with shaved heads, two with short black hair, becomes clearer, as do their movements, which are in perfect unison.
With their backs to the audience, legs spread wide, feet braced against one another and hands near their hips to hold up their skirts, the dancers rapidly bend from the waist, rotate their hips, straighten up into a left shoulder or head roll, bend backwards — and then repeat, repeat and repeat, creating serpentine spirals and intricate curves that makes their upper bodies appear to be made of plasticine. There are subtle variations in the patterns — leading with a shoulder roll to the right, or an extra step, but the dancers always move as one.
The monotonous, driving pulse of composer Xiao He’s (小河) soundscape allows the six no respite. The dancers shift slightly to face the audience as the light slowly increases. A sudden drop to their knees allows them to pause for a second and then they are back on their feet and in motion again, only this time they add forward lunges that carry them across to the right of the stage, before they begin to retreat.
By the end of the 35-minute piece, the six dancers — Duan Ni (段妮), Wang Hao (王好), Lei Yan (雷琰), Fu Liwei (付立唯), Wang Mingchao (王明超) and Mao Xue (毛雪) — are back in their starting position, having never broken their line and leaving the audience in awe.
While the choreography in 6 downplays the dancers’ individuality, it emphasizes their physicality and fluidity.
The group collective was also the focus of the second piece, 5, only this time five dancers — including Tao, but minus Wang Hao and Fu — moved as an amorphous mass across the floor.
They began sitting in a “V” formation, one against the other, facing away from the audience. Slowly they leaned back until they were prone, and then began to twist and curl their bodies into a heaving, circular mass until it was hard to tell where one person began and another left off, even though the stage was well-lit. A leg would rise here, and a hand or an arm there, sometimes a head, and twice, one woman rose above the rest on a man’s shoulders, only to slowly be lowered back into the fold.