Artistic director of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集), Lin Hwai-min (林懷民), once said that Tao Ye (陶冶) was “not just the best choreographer in China, but one of the best in the world.” This May, London audiences get another chance to judge for themselves when TAO Dance Theater (陶身體劇場) return to Sadler’s Wells with 4 and 9.
David Mead caught up recently with the Chinese choreographer…
Dance that is incredibly precise in every way. Dance that may appear minimalist but that is equally complex. Dancers often in perfect unison, together absolutely as one. Just some of the features that have made TAO Dance Theater in demand worldwide.
Tao Ye’s style is certainly unique but he says, “I wouldn’t say I was happy with the word ‘style’ to describe my work. I like to pay most attention to what is common between people. Yes, individuals have their own different styles or characters, and in one sense that makes for a very diverse world but, actually, the world is one thing. I try very hard to go back to the origins of movement, to communicate with my own body, and between different dancers’ bodies.”
What about ‘minimalist’? “Different people have different interpretations. I think that ‘minimalist’ is just one way of seeing it. What is important is that my dance inspires people and maybe makes them realise or see new things, to go beyond what they thought was possible.”
In fact, Tao prefers not to put dance into categories at all and avoids any sort of clichéd ideas in his choreography that might tempt others to box his work. He certainly doesn’t see himself as an Eastern or Chinese choreographer. As he rightly points out, there has long been no art that is purely Eastern or purely Western, and that’s before we get into arguments about East and West being single entities anyway. He believes that true art transcends geography and culture. “Dance is an art form of the world. There are no boundaries and no categories into which my work should be placed.”
The two works to be seen at Sadler’s Wells appear quite different. In 4, a quartet in baggy trousers and masks move together perfectly in a fixed pattern never broken by any solos or duets. Never touching, it’s as though the dancers are held together by some invisible force. Taken with the music, it’s full of texture and depth, however. The second work, 9, departs from the pattern of the previous seven works in the series. In Chinese culture, the number represents the cycle of hardship and renewal, the nine dancers hiding connections within apparent chaos.
With all the works in his number series, Tao looks first for a start point, then develops it to its extreme. Whereas most choreographers add new elements as a work progresses, he actually cuts things out, always remaining true to the original single idea. It’s a creative process that can take a long time, and that’s before he starts rehearsing with dancers.
Tao explains that the movement itself comes from a “circular movement system” he has been developing for ten years. “Imagine your body is like a pen and that every single part of your body is a point that can draw circles; every joint, limb, even every hair. There are three key moments: the triggering of the point, the transmitting of the movement of the movement to the point, and finally the movement of the point itself. The movements can be in any direction and are sort of never ending, the three elements constantly cycling in their own circle. You could also imagine similar movement in liquid, fluid and constantly changing shape, or as movement in the universe without gravity.” During rehearsals, the movement is interpreted as a language to express the original idea.
A striking feature of much of Tao’s dance is the incredible togetherness of his dancers that comes from their training and hours of daily rehearsal. “They have to be very focused and have great passion.” First, they need to understand and totally be able to control their own bodies, their weight, momentum and power. That can take anything up to a year for new dancers to achieve, he says. Then, they need to feel the presence of each other in the space and the space itself.
Both 4 and 9 feature music by Tao’s regular collaborator, the avant-garde composer Xiao He. “He’s a very talented musician, incredibly creative,” says Tao. “In our years of working together, he’s helped me very much. We have a kind of chemistry. We both think that dance and music actually exist in parallel and cannot control each other. Dance should not manipulate the music, neither music the dance. Even so, when we collaborate, we try to drag them into one world and to make the audience feel that, despite this, they belong together. But, it’s also not our job to control how the audience actually see it.”
Tao asks that audiences approach his work with an open mind. He hopes that they see what he describes as “the infinite potential of the body, to discover that something simple can lead to lots of possibilities.”
The use of numbers for titles expresses his willingness to break away from the usual, he says. It also symbolises growth, simplifies understanding and reduces complication.” So how far can it go? “In my mind, in terms of the choreography, I am up to 15,” he says, but admits that, in practice, it gets more difficult choreographically and to find dancers with each one. “Project-based work is really hard for them and my work requires lots and lots of training and rehearsal. The creation of new work is a big challenge for them as well as myself; and it’s unfortunate, but sometimes dancers leave. I think, it’s not important to think too far ahead. I just treasure the process for each one.”
Finding his own artistic voice was far from the fore when Tao started dancing. He actually discovered contemporary dance in the unlikely surroundings of the Chinese military. While a dancer with them, a teacher from the Jin Xing Dance Theatre (金星舞蹈團) in Shanghai (which he would later join for a time), came to give a few modern dance classes. “I was immediately impressed by her training methods.”
Modern dance of any sort had been notably absent from his previous training at the Chongqing Dance School (重慶舞蹈學校), where his studies focused on ballet, folk and Chinese classical dance. He was enrolled by his mother after his outstandingly flexible body had been noticed. Also absent was any encouragement to think for yourself. It was all about training skills and technique. Tao has likened it to feeding ducks. “I can’t say that I enjoyed it,” he says. “Even as I child I was always questioning things, questioning myself. Why am I where I am? How can I move on? At the time, I didn’t really understand why I had to dance and certainly like this; and why I had to always smile.”
In that army dance class, and afterwards with Jin Xing and the Beijing Modern Dance Company (北京現代舞團), Tao realised modern dance could offer infinite possibilities for movement exploration and movement satisfy a desire he had to “control the body,” as he puts it. By that, he stresses that he means controlling the whole body, emotionally as well as physically, and the interaction with the space and the surroundings. “In many ways, I was suddenly finding answers to all those questions I had back in the Chongqing Dance School. It was like finding a key to a new world.”
Looking back, choreography was a natural progression. “It was a way to break out of where I was at the time and to connect with other people, and the most important thing in choreography is connections: with other people, with the environment and with the surroundings, including the audience. I am influenced by lots of things but mostly by the world around me and how I feel.”
In 2004 he co-founded the Shanghai-based physical performance company Zuhe Niao (組合嬲), and made work for Jin Xing and the Beijing Modern Dance Company, but still seeking complete freedom to be true to himself and his ideas, in 2008 he started Tao Dance Theater.
The Chinese actually translates directly as ‘Tao Body Theatre’. “Dance is the greatest art form in the world because the material we use to dance is ourselves. The body is everything. It contains all the senses. On stage, we expose, we show, everything it is to be human. So, body equals dance, dance equals body,” Tao explains.
Turning to the wider state of contemporary dance in China, Tao is optimistic but says, “It takes time. I hope that both audiences and artists do not give up, that artists can follow their heart and create the sort of work that they want to create, and that audiences will go to theatres and embrace that work with open minds.” The best way to encourage its development is to produce good work, which he feels will encourage more of the same from artists and persuade audiences to return.
Linked in with that is Tao’s ‘dance wish’. “I want to start a sort of dance education organisation to help train and educate professional or potentially professional dancers from the very beginning. I want to encourage their development by going back to the basics. So, not about collaborations with other art forms or as part of projects, but going back to the foundations.”
More immediately, some exciting news for later this year is that Tao will be collaborating with Cloud Gate Dance Theatre. “But I can’t say anything more at the moment,” he said enigmatically.
Tao Dance Theater perform 4 and 9 at London’s Sadler’s Wells on May 24 & 25, 2019. Visit www.sadlerswells.com for more details and tickets.
And there’s more dance from China from May 9-11 at Sadler’s Wells, when Yang Liping presents her Rite of Spring. Click here for details and tickets.