These Inadequate Words: Katie McMillan on TAO Dance Theater

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These Inadequate Words: Katie McMillan on TAO Dance Theater

Check out the full Harbourfront Centre blog post at this link. 

Flipping through the program a few minutes before the opening of last night’s performance by TAO Dance Theater, I read the following: “Choreographer Tao Ye believes a single word or phrase is insufficient to summarize a work of contemporary dance theatre while still allowing audiences free range of imagination.” This excerpt was in reference to titling the work, but of course my reaction to reading this was, well, then how the hell am I supposed to write 1200 words about it?! I thought I was encouraging critical discussion about the work, not limiting imagination! And I’m not summarizing, right?! I just use examples from the performance by – *gasp* – describing them in words; does this mean I’m destroying everyone’s individual reception of the work? What is my purpose? Where is the internet?! (FYI: every time I have an existential crisis I end up worrying about where the internet is. Physically. Like, I know it’s in my computer, but where does it come from?)

Shortly after this outburst, the performance began and I forgot all about words and titles and criticism and the internet. In fact, I forgot about everything. I lost all sense of time. I stopped searching for story and linearity. I just stopped searching, period. To say that this performance is hypnotizing is a vast understatement. It’s more like a vortex that sucks up your brain and body into this timeless, somewhat meditative state. This work is not entertainment for entertainment’s sake; it’s actually not really entertainment at all. The movements are repetitive, rhythmic, and… hypnotic. That’s the only word I can think of to describe the performance because it’s less of a description and more of a zone. Do I sound like I’m stoned? Because after the show, I really felt like it.

To see Weight x3 & 2 is to experience the work. There isn’t really any other way of putting it. To say I ‘watched’ the performance is insufficient because it’s so all-encompassing. I was not anticipating what would come next, nor was I reflecting on what had come before. I was just being, in the moment. When the lights came on for intermission, I literally had no idea how much time had passed.

There were essentially three segments in this production; Weight x3 consists of a duet and a solo and 2 is (not surprisingly) a duet. The first segment, danced by Lei Yan and Gong Xingxing, was strangely reminiscent of M.C. Escher’s Drawing Hands (which I always thought was called ‘Hands Drawing Hands’ – for obvious reasons – until I Googled it to check my spelling of Escher just now). The two dancers held hands for the majority of the performance, and it was difficult to determine where one dancer ended and the other began. There was a seamless unity between them that allowed them to be simultaneously two and one. Their inevitable division happened so discreetly that I hardly noticed; the process of separation was slow and ultimately incomplete.

The second segment of Weight x3 was performed by Duan Ni with a long, wooden staff. The lighting design was fabulous and Ni glowed like a firefly on a country road. The choreography was mesmerizing as human and object seemed to propel one another before, during, and after each movement. Again, my critical reflection was limited to images incited by the work; I imagined anthropomorphized objects like a human helicopter or a windmill. I saw a hummingbird and a spider quickly, but methodically, weaving its web. It felt almost inevitable that Ni would eventually drop the staff – how could she possibly have maintained such fluid and complex movements for such a long time? I’ll admit, though, it was disappointing when she did eventually drop it, despite picking it up and continuing so quickly that if someone had blinked at just the right moment, they may never have known. For me, it brought me back to the material world. I remembered where I was again. I lost the magic for just a moment.

This led to what I found was a poorly timed intermission. I understand that the set had to be changed for the next performance but it is slightly jarring to be forced to leave the theatre less than 30 minutes after sitting down. In hindsight, I can see why Tao Ye may not have wanted to begin the show with 2, but I found it much more difficult to settle in to the second half of the performance. This seemed to be the experience for many audience members and as the work progressed, the silent segments of 2 allowed us to hear every shift, whisper or adjustment made in the entire theatre. It was especially awkward when a woman in the front row pulled out her cell phone and started texting. (PS. Dear woman in the front row who pulled out her cell phone and started texting: ACTUALLY?).

In terms of style and aesthetic, 2 felt like a complete contrast to Weight x3. It was cold and stark. The movements were jerky and disjointed as opposed to rhythmic and united. With the dancers already on stage when we re-entered the theatre, it almost felt as though the work began before we entered and would continue after we left. At the same time, the performers seemed to move as if in response to movement in the audience. They flopped around the stage like fish out of water, clown-like but with distinct precision. The sound design was disarming, alternating between the self-reflective not-so-silent audience and crackling static layered with recognizable noises that built slowly or rang alarmingly. Dancers Tao Ye and Duan Ni appeared to be both creating their environment and reacting to it.

About halfway through the performance of 2, I realized that if Samuel Beckett had been a dancer, his work would have looked a lot like this. The post-apocalyptic feeling of 2 reminded me a lot of Beckett’s Endgame; an attempt to continue routine or maintain some semblance of life when everything has been destroyed. It was playful and depressing and philosophical, whereas the first segment of Weight x3 reflected the experience of being hypnotized by habit and repetition, not unlike Waiting for Godot. I suppose that would mean the second segment of Weight x3 recalled Beckett’s Not I, a haunting piece that features only a mouth speaking rapidly on stage. It leaves the audience in a kind of trance, left to fend for themselves against the jarring reality outside of the theatre.

There is really nothing in the style, aesthetic, or execution of Weight x3 & that is analogous to Beckett’s plays. The parallels I found were in the experience of being at the performance. All of my deductive reasoning failed. The years I spent learning critical analysis were irrelevant. Beckett even said, “Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.” I think he was right.

Katie McMillan is a director, writer, and appreciator who serves as the Theatre Criticism Correspondent for World Stage 2013. She also works for Abilities Arts Festival, promoting inclusivity in the arts and producing an array of work by professional artists with disabilities.  In her spare time, Katie writes short fiction and performs original comic songs for her cats (and anyone else who might be listening). @KatieMcChillin