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February 23, 2014 9:04 pm
Tao Ye likes to designate his dances by number rather than name. After 4 comes 5, his latest to appear in the US: the 27-year-old choreographer behind Beijing’s six-member Tao Dance Theater is just getting started. And yet he is already a worldwide festival favourite and distinctive to boot, in spite of – or perhaps because of – his deliberately limited means.
From 2012, 4 restricted itself to four dancers moving in unison and in a tight cohort within the square of the stage. The dancers’ faces were blacked out, their gaze down, their spines never succumbing to the easy beauty of uprightness, and their voluminous costumes, full of folds and creases, were identical.
Yet punctuating the unremitting likeness was a funkiness in the swirling hips and accordion ribs, a wilfulness in the flicker of the lower leg and jab of a heel into the floor, and an unpredictability in the drops to the floor. The effect was not to unravel the matrix of constancy so much as to heighten our awareness of its intricate texture.
The dancers in 4 may have shared all their steps but they remained distinct. By contrast, the performers in 5 each took a different part in a single roiling mass that rolled over and over itself in its progress along the stage’s perimeter. One person’s ankles, another’s calves, a third’s skull rose from the floor only to sink back to the floor, replaced by other ankles and calves.
At times, the ever-evolving and revolving formation suggested bodies ploughed into earth, the dark soil glinting with bare flesh and bone. Sorrowful and macabre passages in folk-rocker He Xiao’s bumpy score reinforced this terrible correspondence. At other moments, the rolling mound conveyed the amorphous and primordial, with apt accompaniment in a drone of voices as gravelly and low as a dragon’s sigh. One of the regular pleasures of Tao’s choreography is its allusiveness, but the oscillations in tone and reference in 5 left me disconcerted and exhausted.
NYU Skirball’s Visions + Voices: China performing arts season continues until May 12, nyuskirball.org; Tao Dance Theater appears in Boston on February 27-28
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