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Cynics occasionally quip that it’s oxymoronic to talk of Chinese “modern dance.” They argue that what passes for modernity in Chinese dance today looks positively quaint and derivative compared with what’s happening in North America and Europe, or, closer to home, in Japan. Obviously they have not yet checked out TAO Dance Theatre, making its local debut Wednesday night as part of Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage series. This is a Chinese troupe that’s definitely on the cutting edge.
Tao Ye, 27, launched his eponymously-named troupe five years ago but already it’s established an enviable international reputation. He began dancing at age 12 in his native city, Chongqing. Tao made good progress and three years later joined an army song and dance ensemble in Shanghai. “I loved dance and dance loved me,” Tao explains through an interpreter. He went on to dance with the Shanghai contemporary troupe, Jin Xing Dance Theatre, and on the side formed his own informal experimental group, Zuhe Niao, in 2004.
Two years later he moved to the capital to join the Beijing Modern Dance Company, but discontented with the modes and conventions he was obliged to conform with, left to establish TAO Dance Theatre with Duan Ni, his wife and fellow choreographer, and another colleague, Wang Hao.
Tao explains that his move away from the dance conventions he felt were holding him back was gradual. Part of its was about truly understanding his own body and, essentially, freeing it from his personal ego and emotions. He explains this evolution towards a minimalistic, non-representational form is apparent in the differences between the two works on his World Stage program.
Nowadays he prefers titles that prompt no expectations in terms of content. Thus the title of his 2011 work, 2, merely refers to the number of dancers. In contrast, Weight x3, made in 2008, is more descriptive and plays on the double meaning of the Chinese character in its title, which can stand for both physical weight and repetition.
Like many in the Western avant-garde dance scene, Tao describes his approach as process-oriented. He does not believe in waiting for a bolt of inspiration. “Inspiration,” he says, “is like a spark that comes one day and is gone the next.”
He also, somewhat disarmingly, concedes what many of his peers prefer to hide. “I choreographic for myself, not for an audience.”
He prefers not to attempt to second guess what will or will not work for them. “I can’t control how an audience reacts,” says Tao. “My goal is to reveal the charisma of the body itself.”
Building a company from scratch has been hard work. Tao began with nothing. His first studio was a five-hour commute from the centre of Beijing. But he had a lucky break. In 2008, some presenters from Europe heard about him, came to take a look and extended an invitation to visit Holland and Belgium. He’s hardly had time to look back as the company has continued its international touring to, among other major centres, Sydney, London and New York.
Tao can afford a better studio now, this time closer to the city centre and in the summer plans to boost the company roster to eight dancers, including himself and his wife. Yet, ironically, he has yet to make his official Chinese debut. It’s finally happening this August — and in a prestigious Beijing venue.
How Chinese audiences will react to his radical approach is clearly a source of concern but he’s also an optimist. “In my heart I believe that good things will happen.”