The Strength of (Small) Numbers

May 16, 2012
TAO Dance Theater, Lincoln Center Festival, New York
July 26, 2012
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The Strength of (Small) Numbers

Check out the full New York Times article at this link. 

TAO Dance Theater, appearing at Alice Tully Hall as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, is both dance and theater. Though the two pieces on its program tell no stories and express humanity only in impersonally collective ways, both have theatrical force and authority. This Chinese company, led by the artistic director Tao Ye, was formed in 2008 in Beijing. Its two items, “4” and “2,” both take their names from their number of performers. They’re at once related and contrasting; and they each have East-meets-West qualities.

In “4” the dancers — always close together in the same diamond formation, always in unison, and often turning to face every which way — move nonstop for perhaps half an hour to a brisk rhythm. Though sometimes they sink to their knees and tilt in this or that direction, their stance is generally upright. They pace, they kick, they wade, they raise fists; they don’t fall or roll. Their legs and feet are forever apart; they squat and stride.

Tics of head and shoulder animate the upper body, as do huge circling of individual shoulders and the whole torso. These dancers, barefoot, wear loose smoke-blue tunics over charcoal-gray pantaloons that bag out into a single skirtlike look. Their faces are masked with tiny eyeholes and their genders are unidentifiable.

2” is in several ways the complete opposite. Its two dancers spend more time motionless, often for long periods, than in motion. And, even if at a few points they do manage to balance on their own two feet, the movement’s emphasis is always on them being pulled down to the ground. They prop themselves up off the ground, they lean over to face the ground or, frequently, they just lie flat on it for long periods. (It’s a shock when they stand for applause at the end, to find the dancers are of radically different heights; while they’re in action, that’s never evident.)

When first we see them, they’re on their stomachs, legs parted; and we’re looking at the soles of their feet, the insides of their legs. We can’t see their faces. They wear green-brown attire tight on the torso, with loose, webbed leggings. When they rise, their faces and hands are bare. “2” is danced and choreographed by Mr. Tao and Duan Ni, who both have shaven heads; Mr. Tao is the sole choreographer of “4,” in which he does not dance but in which Ms. Duan does. When finally they move in long phrases, they’re often on their knees, thighs, shoulders or spines; the athletic control is remarkable, with torsos tipping radically throughout.

Another way in which “2” and “4” differ are in their accompaniments, though these are both by the composer Xiao He and taped. The score for “4” is largely dominated by a few spoken syllables recycled in metric patterns, a Chinese equivalent to the text-sound inventions of the American composer Charles Amirkhanian; these are accompanied sometimes by percussive block sounds, elsewhere by harsh string notes. The music for “2,” similar more to certain John Cage scores, has long periods of silence, but it sounds now at one point like tinnitus being unsuccessfully treated by electric shock treatment, and now like interference on a lone wireless after the destruction of the human race.

The biggest difference between the two works, however, is dance rhythm. “4” is nonstop, with a constant although changing pulse; “2” is irregular, with sudden phrases (some long, some short) alternating with rests.

In “4” especially the movement combines the characteristics of Asian martial arts forms (tai chi not least) with the physicality of American postmodern dance or early Twyla Tharp choreography. (Those tics of the head and shoulder!) Human individuality is not the point. In each work the movement seems both involuntary and visceral: a powerful drive, like a collective unconscious onstage.

The physicality and momentum of “4” are both extraordinary and appealing. The idiom of “2,” though even more athletic in its demands, is stranger, above all in its highly unpredictable rhythm. A few people walked out toward the end of “2”; and in each dance both choreography and score somewhat outstayed their welcomes. But the odd timing early on in “2” also made people in the audience laugh, in good ways. After their extremely long period of immobility, the two dancers began to do isolated staccato moves that were amusing and startling; and the patches of silence in the peculiar music were funny too. The elements of surprise are among the ways in which these TAO Dance Theater works prove more expressive than their impersonal manner seems to suggest. They do, however, exhaust their own expressive range; and this is their greatest limitation.