There is something depressing about the Chinese company TAO Dance Theater and the choreography of its founder Tao Ye: as an international cultural export of a totalitarian Communist regime, the dancers are reduced to mere bodies to be manipulated rather than living, breathing, sentient artists. Tao’s works 4 and 9 erase the humanity from the ensemble of admittedly physically impressive performers: in the former, four of them wear head-hugging coverings and have their faces blacked out as they enact Tao’s movements, while in the latter the nine dancers are identically dressed (loose grey tops and balloon trousers), men and women with close-cropped hair, levelled into scenic androgyny, expressionless throughout. Indeed, even at curtain call, they step forward and back as one, faces mask-like, emotions utterly excised. It is an un-nerving sight.
Tao has developed what he calls the ‘Circular Movement System’ which enables him to set his dancers off in a near perpetuum mobile of bending, sweeping, slicing moves, torsos undulating, arms wheeling, four dancers in total synchronicity in 4, nine seemingly at random in 9. The physical strength, stamina and accomplishment are impressive, as well as the dancers’ memory for the complex sequences Tao has created, but it is all utterly devoid of humanity. That is left to the soundtracks of chanting and electronic sound which composer Xiao He has created – they often possess a directness and immediacy which are wholly lacking from the stage.
Set in a bare black box with un-showy lighting and monochrome costumes, Tao’s creations could possess a monastic asceticism but do not. Where there might be a form of spirituality there is instead a rigorously secular, prosaic quality through the choreographer’s avowed intention totally to remove inherent meaning and sense and to present instead bodies in motion from which the audience is then supposed to glean whatever it might glean. As an artistic endeavour it is arid, empty and off-putting – the dancers are uniformly excellent, throwing themselves into Tao’s repetitive movement idiom with unwavering loyalty, both their individuality and artistry ruthlessly erased. Tao’s work is, in this respect, a depressing sight.