Tao Dance Theater
Alice Tully Hall
New York, NY
July 27, 2012
by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2012 by Leigh Witchel
Modern dance is still catching up with ballet in China, but Tao Ye doesn’t feel behind the times. He’s a minimalist and a formalist who played with concepts of pacing and construction that were provocative enough to make people leave. But was the audience provoked or just exhausted?
His company, now four years old, played for a short run as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. The two works performed were titled by numbers – the same as the amount of dancers in each.
Four women started with their backs to us in the first piece. They were masked in black and costumed in limp, slouchy tops and large skirts of coarse fabric, recalling Rei Kawakubo’s designs. The movement palette was fluid, consistent and restricted. The cast went through long, organic phrases, twisting, kicking, striding, reeling. The masked dancers and the dancing – so unvaried and in relentless unison, had echoes of the forces of conformity or oppression.
The music changed; the dancing didn’t. By five minutes in, you had seen everything they were going to do. It went on for about half an hour more. The lights slowly dimmed to signify the end, though the dancers didn’t stop. They might never have.
In the duo, Tao was joined by Duan Ni, both were credited with the choreography. Though Duan is female, both had their heads shorn like new recruits and were dressed in outfits of distressed gray, like apprentice ninjas down on their luck.
At first they laid face down for a long while, still and in silence. Bit by bit they started to move, and raised themselves piece by piece. They flopped about like marionettes with cut strings; it took a long while for them to move from floor work to their feet. Once they did, they did a slow-motion breakdance as if in freefall, caroming back to the floor and into headstands. The transition from floor work to standing up isn’t a transition – it just happens – neither works build. The arc of Tao’s dances isn’t an arc; they move in a flat line and all parts have equal value.
After the body of the dancing, the two of them lay motionless once again. They got up and retreated as the lights dimmed slowly to nothing, but the music continued. Several in the audience took the blackout as an escape route – the performance went over the scheduled time by nearly half an hour.
But that was not the finale. The two reentered and stood with their eyes closed for a time. It was the first time you could get a good look at both of them; he was tall and powerfully built; she was small and wiry. The still moment might have been a somnambulistic curtain call, but it was the close of the piece. They broke from their trance like two soldiers allowed to go at ease, and finally acknowledged the applause.
The synchrony and endurance of the works were impressive, especially for Duan, who was in both pieces and almost never left the stage. The infinitesimal variations in the choreography seemed like a feat just to have memorized.
Throw in several minutes of stasis and blackouts that are neither transitions or finishes and you have dances that could be provocative and demanding. But without any build or emphasis, it was also a tough evening with little payoff made tougher by Tao’s long-windedness. It could be that the cultural context was lost in the journey from Beijing to New York, but it also could be that he simply didn’t have the stagecraft to pull it off.
copyright © 2012 by Leigh Witchel
Photos by Stephanie Berger
Top: TAO Dance Theater in “4”
Bottom: Tao Ye, Duan Ni in “2”