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The flexibility of Chinese dancers is worshipped the world over, and even by these stratospheric standards, the boneless Tao Ye stands out. But though his body moves like a cracked whip, it is his choreography that will make him famous. In the five years since he founded the TAO Dance Theatre (TDT) he has played festivals both at home and abroad, run standing room-only dance workshops, drawn sold-out crowds at the Sydney Opera House and New York’s Lincoln Centre, and this month makes his NCPA debut. And Tao is just getting started.
The Chongqing native undoubtedly has athletic blood, with his grandfather running a wushu school and his mother a talented amateur dancer. ‘She sent me to dance school to do what she never did,’ Tao says. Once at Chongqing Dance School he soaked up the standard Chinese training programme of ballet, folk and classical dance that makes the country’s dancers envied across the globe. But Tao found more freedom in modern and contemporary choreography, spending several years with both the Jin Xing Dance Company and Beijing Modern Dance Company.
But even that proved too constraining. Tao had flirted with choreographing in both companies and now had found his calling. ‘It’s instinct,’ he says. ‘It forces you to – or allows you to – understand yourself better. With dance you are always giving, giving, giving to audiences. With choreography, you can [take] something back.’ In 2008 he started his own company. ‘I like to be free, to do my own works. [Here] there are no limits.’
Tao co-founded TDT with fellow dancer Wang Hao, but the core member is Duan Ni, formerly with Akram Khan and Shen Wei. The two became a couple at Jin Xing Dance Theatre, but Duan left to establish an international career, returning to join TDT in 2008. At the height of their international tour, Tao surprised his longtime love with an onstage proposal in front of a sold-out crowd. ‘The stage is our ultimate dream,’ he says. ‘I wanted to give her my commitment where our dreams and reality come together.’
They are a striking couple; besides having matching shaved heads, Duan’s body is equally devoid of joints, cartilage and other obstructions that hamper us mere mortals. ‘We have so much in common!’ says Tao, listing their similar physicality and dance styles, identical zodiac signs, and name characters with the same number of strokes. And that’s not all. ‘My fingerprints are ten perfect circles, and hers are ten arches [a perfect match],’ he says. ‘It would be too difficult for us not to be a couple.’
Tao feels his standards for her are higher than his other dancers, but that they both influence and understand each other. ‘Whenever I feel there is something wrong with my dancers, she has already noticed and is [fixing] it,’ he says. ‘She 100 percent trusts me. Even if I am wrong about something, she supports me all the way through until I give up the idea [myself],’ he continues. ‘Not only in our daily lives do we get along well, but also we see eye-to-eye about our dancers, choreography and aesthetics,’ he continues. ‘We are perfect partners.’
To sum up Tao’s still-developing creative style, think of a jewel – small, structured, perfectly formed, but with unexpected depth and glorious complexity. While other groups will toss in a red scarf or reference the I Ching just to attract festivals looking for ‘something Chinese’, Tao eschews clichés and is honest sometimes to the point of alienation – while critically acclaimed, his dance 2 had some audience walkouts. Their loss. Tao frees himself from all dance convention – such as dramatic narrative, body-baring costumes and even music on occasion – and the effect is liberating, even inspiring. In 2, Tao and Duan spend long periods lying motionless in complete silence – when they do move, their bodies rarely leave the floor. A celebration not only of upper body strength but of silent counting, 2 is mesmerising, not least because of its deceptive simplicity. In the more popular 4, a whimsical quartet of androgynous dancers wear baggy smocks, masks and wigs, moving to Xiao He’s genius score of repeated syllables and staccato sounds. Unlike other pas de quatre, they don’t break into solos or duets; indeed, they never leave their diamond formation, but Tao creates texture and variety nonetheless.
Over the past five years, TDT has made its mark, both on China’s dance education scene and on the world stage, but Tao views his career as a ‘lifetime of searching and development,’ and sees nothing to celebrate. ‘The only thing I can do is my own thing well.’ That he does. You may not love all his works, but attention must be paid; Tao may just emerge as China’s greatest choreographer.