February 25, 2014
NYU Skirball is spotlighting China for 2014’s Visions + Voices Global Performance Series. The first stop this past weekend was Tao Dance Theater, a remarkable start as, despite being one of China’s leading contemporary dance companies, the troupe actually struggles in its homeland, receiving less funding than its more nationalistic artistic brethren. Choreographer Tao Ye takes advantage of his underground status like a devout monk through extremely focused work – taking up to a year to make a piece, devoting entire rehearsals to exploring the possibilities of one movement. Tao takes nothing for granted; his two US premiers teach us to do the same.
Distant bells sound in darkness, revving the motors for 4, a gripping opener. Dim light reveals four humanoids, already engrossed in velvety motion. We are late for the party, but the fluid articulation of their backs is sufficient company. Voices like rubber churn out an incomprehensible a cappella patter, which functions as both an alternate translation of what the dancers are saying and a guide, inspiring brisk teleportation of looped unison phrasework through space.
As we become familiar with the vocabulary, a creed of cool indulgence, it becomes overwhelmingly apparent how fully each body part is considered – feet don’t just leave the ground, they peel away, returning with refreshed pliability. In many ways the movement execution is choreography unto itself. Ma Yue’s lighting exists on the same plane, with clear spots and diagonals in muted hues carving out environments. It is not decoration or emotive expression, but a character to which the movers actively respond.
5, while also working with minimalist abstraction, reads more as communal ritual than formal meditation. Five bodies travel as a clump through clockwise orbits, never unraveling. Whereas the movement in 4 interacts with musical shifts, the dynamic of 5 remains constant against Xiao He’s multidimensional score of duetting flutes, clunky piano, sparse drum and bass, and cryptic growls – if Armageddon were in full swing you would still find this clan on the same path, rolling ever onward.
What looks like contact improvisation is painstakingly composed. “Clump” becomes architectural form, alternating porous volumes with intimate proximities, revolving in parallel and contrary motion. Dancers stand freely only three times before being fastidiously dismantled, as if any stance that cannot be executed without support from the whole is benevolently forbidden. This doesn’t stop one bold individual from choosing to remain standing, drawing the piece to a close as the figure descends on its own terms.
Li Min’s costuming provides androgyny that is as abstract but deeply human as the choreography. Gender is not manipulated into statement – rather, one gets the sense that these flowing garments are no more than fabric, draping over what are no more than bodies. Indeed, they seem to clothe movements more than their executors, making for a particularly satisfying curtain call. Nobody could clap for one dancer more than any other. You simply couldn’t tell who had done what – Tao Ye’s dancers are that transparent, and his work is that transcendent.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews