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China came late to modern dance – and nothing is as deadly as a recent convert’s earnest faith. So when the programme declared that Beijing choreographer Ye Tao, of the five-year-old TAO Dance Theater, “eschews representational modes of dance” even to the point of forgoing words for numerals in dance titles, I thought I knew just what kind of discovery we were in for. What a relief to be wrong.
The 90-minute show was not easy. The impersonality of its outrageousness may have precluded hot-headed protest, but by the halfway mark of the second piece the entire row behind me had tiptoed out.
This duet, entitled 2, began with Tao and co-choreographer Ni Duan lying on their bellies for five minutes like green mould against the bright white floor while folk-punk composer He Xiao engulfed us in high-pitched static. The piece ended strangely too, with the eccentric music carrying on after the dance had finished and the dancers had re-entered to wait for it to croak its last so they could bow.
It was the first time they stood. Until then the duo had flopped about on their bellies and backs and sidled samurai-style from knee to knee in swampy, swirly, unexpectedly gorgeous patterns. But more than the low-riding style, the long freezes or the industrial detritus that Xiao mixed with fairy tinkles and swathes of chalky cello, it was 2’s flouting of structure that proved bracing – or, for some, unbearable. The duet was all about starting and stopping and starting again without ever quite becoming.
I admired the squirm-inducing 2, but 4 really made me want to keep up with the young choreographer’s work. This more audience-friendly quartet, of women moving in unison in a quadrant that swiftly and regularly shifted direction, confirmed how individual and complete Tao’s language can be – and how integral to the dance’s shape and the music’s character. To a comic chorus of chanted nonsense syllables, the women roiled and jerked. An elbow or knee yanked them up, redirecting the waves that coursed through their bodies. The dance moved like a force of nature; the dancers, masked throughout, revealed a gawky humanity as much as an untamed grace.