Ethereal Movements: TAO Dance Theatre

The inventive performance group return to Sadler’s Wells with an exploration into their own potential both physically and existentially.

Since the essence of dance lies within human movement, the importance of the human body can hardly be overstated. However, few practitioners are as effusive about it as Tao Ye. Founder of the TAO Dance Theatre, the Beijing-born choreographer understands the very nature of body as a “microcosm of the universe.” He talks of it as a “kaleidoscope: the only witness of all the feelings and senses from our birth to death.” He explains: “When we talk about the idea of ‘experience’, we are actually talking about the phenomenon of something the body has been through.” In this way, the Theatre is based upon the notion that performers contain past, present and future already – without any other materials.

If Tao Ye’s veneration for the human structure runs the risk of appearing hyperbolic, it is worth remembering that the amount of energy contained within each person runs to epic proportions: as a species we are a mass of kinetic possibility from the cellular level upwards. It is easy to comprehend his declaration that “when I use the human body as the only means to create my work, I actually have everything.”

A central idea from his practice is the thought that we can gain omniscience from our genetic make-up. Extending this as a dramatic theory, if the limbs we use to express ourselves mean everything, then “dance is a language of divinity and the stage is like a ceremony.” It is a communication that transcends any verbal language – even time and space.

The natural sequences that occur within each of us on a daily basis – and throughout life – have since become the basis for the Theatre’s reputation. Employing repetitive and cyclical movements, the group evoke a meditative, trance-like atmosphere, testing the limits of audience concentration. The fluidity involved in each step also explores the rhythms that take place on a molecular level – ones that instil development, repair and rebirth. As a consequence of continual exercise, the wave-like actions deplete the dancers’ reserves of energy, introducing a sense of weight and exhaustion to the steps that exist in that moment.

The choreographer also manifests his desire for transcendence and unveiling the true physical capability of the human race. There is no narrative – no character or development as such – instead anatomy is celebrated as a medium of visual art and the heart of memories, opportunities and the present. “As processes are reiterated, such repetition not only a ords experience, but also dissolves the very distinction between beginning and end,” says Tao Ye.

Following the success of Sadler’s Wells Out of Asia season, the institution has invited TAO Dance Theatre back to showcase their latest success, 8. This is the final work within the Straight Line Trilogy, and follows on from Series of Numbers. Each performance is titled with numerals owing to Tao Ye’s scepticism about the limitations of language and the ability of a single word to convey the imaginative possibilities inherent within dance. The use of numbers, however, “signifies the rejection of the duality between abstract and concrete thinking. It accumulates the logic of movement and presents the continuity – a ritual of natural sequence.”

The device certainly lends a clean simplicity and allows the focus to remain on the gures at the centre of the dance, especially as the titles and number of performers correspond. The slow, measured and calculated addition of silhouettes offers a compelling and conceptual insight into the way extra bodies alter the flow on stage: “Number does not define the meaning of my creation, but its increase means my exploration of life is going further. Adding one more dancer adds another layer to my work.”

Straight Line Trilogy, 6, 7 and 8 orientates the dancers as expected, with equal space between them. Within this military-inspired configuration they instigate identical actions at the same tempo, moving in harmony with one another. In each piece the dancers are limited in various and di erent ways: “I got rid of any movement of limbs in 6, which allows the dancers to fully show the pulse of the spine as a straight line. In 7, I cut out the background music, which visualises the rhythm of breathing when dancers stretch and bend their spines. In 8, I reduced the levels by making the performers lie on the oor, transforming the medium into a two-dimensional documentary, recording the persistent fluctuations of life through their rotating and twisting spines.”

The idea of the “straight line” is a reference to the positioning on stage, but also to this central study of the backbone – a most vital structural element within our own construction. The choreographer expands on the notion as a metaphor: “It is a description of my attitude towards creation and choreography: when a straight line is extended forward, it will eventually encounter obstacles that are hard to go through. At this point you have to choose to either continue going straight or take a roundabout route. Similarly, when facing the ongoing and endless changes of the world, I need to remain committed to a path in order to keep going.”

Despite this observation, Tao Ye does not often operate in the realm of allegory. He is interested in the body as an element to be perceived for its optical allure – devoid of representation, narrative or context, simply existing as an object alone. Due to this, his oeuvre boasts a mesmeric, minimalistic style. This is only amplified by his use of light and sound design – which is particularly prevalent in 6, where the famed Swedish visual artist Ellen Ruge has designed the inter-connective display that serves as a “shifting landscape of light.” As a creator who translates his inspiration into physical compositions, Tao Ye says that “costume and lighting design are also part of the creation. These key elements assist me in transforming an idea into real work.”

As one of the most sought-after groups across the world, and the first Chinese dance company invited to perform at The Lincoln Center in the USA, the Theatre is committed to encouraging more contemporary dance in to its home region. Tao Ye has taught workshops at a series of schools and universities across the world including Beijing Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing Dance Academy and Taipei National University of the Arts. He is keen to help practitioners explore the potential of natural forms, just as he has: “I wish to establish a long-term class for dance education, helping the public to understand what we do.”

In China, a country with an ancient tradition of classical dance, it is an exciting time for contemporary forms that only continue to grow. The fact that this company is located within this expansive region and employs native dancers has a negligible influence on what Tao Ye creates. “The importance lies in our response to influence. This is the thing: choosing to communicate with the body is to embrace the inspiration that the world gives to me.” It is simple, but it is everything.

Bryony Byrne

TAO Dance Theatre 6 and 8 as part of the Out of Asia season. Sadler’s Wells, London. 3 – 4 October.