Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Tao Dance Theater at Lincoln Center

(photo courtesy of Tao Dance Theater)

Last Friday, on a whim, I bought a ticket to the Tao Dance Theater at Alice Tully Hall. This modern dance company from China was founded in 2008 by Tao Ye, who not only performs but also choreographs its cutting edge, and decidedly polarizing, dance pieces.

The program began with 4, a half-hour piece that featured a quartet of female dancers in black masks moving around the stage in an unvarying square formation. The soundtrack, composed by Xiao He, consisted of monosyllables set to a percussive score, resembling an electronic Buddhist chant with alternating fast and slow movements.

The dance motifs included undulating spines, rotating shoulders, lots of twists, and a general sense of struggle and imbalance wherein one motion led to another in an organic way.

My companion was visibly restless. It's the same movements over and over again, she said during the intermission. Ten minutes would have been enough.

It was hard to disagree with her, and yet I was mesmerized by the whole thing. I thought it was the dance equivalent of serialism, for lack of a better term, that is, repetition as a form of art, just like Andy Warhol, Yayoi Kusama, or Agnes Martin in painting.

The second piece was 2, danced by Tao Ye and his wife Duan Ni. In contrast with 4, there were only a few moments of synchronicity. 2 began with both dancers lying face down on the floor for several minutes while static noise emanated from the speakers.

My companion buried her face in the hands. God, thirty minutes of this?

But soon there were isolated movements: a flick of the hand, a twitch of the leg, which slowly gained momentum into some sort of deconstructed writhing on the floor. At times the dancers stood but they quickly fell down again.

It's hard to say what the dance was about. To me, their gestures recalled fragmented moments of predation, worship, and even sex, all mixed up and rearranged into something not quite decipherable. The soundtrack, also by Xiao He, alternated atonal music with screeching sounds and silence, wherein only the dancers' heavy breathing was audible.

As we were leaving my companion said, That was a waste of time.

Perhaps that might be true for those who seek some kind of meaning or resonance in dance performances. But for me, all this strangeness was exhilirating in a purely formal way. In spite of some similarities with Pilobolus, Tao offered something radically new and challenging and stretched my own preconceptions of modern dance.

The company is touring dance festivals around the world. Click here for Time Out's interview with Tao Ye.

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