China’s Tao Dance Theatre brings two new pieces to Sadler’s Wells’ second stage, Lilian Baylis Studio, which continue the experimentation of its founder, Tao Ye.
Tao does not give his works “proper” names – these two are named 4 and 5 – as he believes words cannot encapsulate dance and titles could lead to preconceptions. It’s a fair argument – even if the same programme notes give descriptions of what happens in the pieces, and use phrases such as “permeated with our conceptions of ‘the body’ and physical practice” and “transcend the duality of abstract vs concrete thought”.
In 4, four dancers wear baggy crossover tops and trousers reminiscent of monks, their faces obscured. The score, by Xiao He, reminds me of Django Django: half-talk, half-chant, with a fantastic rhythm. But the movements only follow the tempo loosely. The dancers travel all over the stage in a diamond-shape formation, their repetitions matching that of the music. It is as if they’re weighed down by an invisible force – the kicks, shuffles, squats and knee spins are all deliberately grounded. Their backward rolls, their legs kicking in the air, further this sense of stuntedness.
It is frustrating to watch at times. One kick looks almost classical in its precision and execution, while another is thrown with careless abandon, legs in different angles and heights, feet neither flexed nor pointed. The result feels rather half-baked.
The group does pick up in energy as it goes on, their togetherness developing a meditative quality that matches the Buddhist chant-style of the composition as well as the costumes. That said, ultimately, the choreography does not develop. It is not a rewarding experience to watch the dancers move in unison for the duration of the piece, never responding to each other.
That’s not a criticism you can level at 5, which opens with the dancers’ heads locked together, recalling Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces. A series of counterbalances and lifts move the mass of bodies around the stage like a wave, and the dancers show tremendous control while displaying a sense of weightlessness.
The costumes are ragged and earth toned – as the bodies writhe, it looks like an uncomfortable cross between people being tortured and participating in an orgy. At one point, one dancer stands, as if to break away – but she is pulled back into the ripple of people just as quickly, never standing out as an individual again.
The score, also composed by He, is fascinating – the low-humming, thundery soundscape morphs into abstract, angular notes. But the choreography does not respond to this change in tone; instead, the dancers continue their ripple, travelling around the stage as one.
And herein lies the problem: this is all there is. The bodies move around the stage four times. Even if it is quite mesmerising, and the dancers certainly seem to be in a trance-like state, it’s not sufficiently interesting choreography for a half-hour piece, and it’s disappointing that these highly trained dancers do not have anything more substantial to sink their teeth into. Yes, it’s experimental, but there’s a fine line between a piece being experimental and feeling like a work- in-progress, and neither 4 nor 5 look like fully-realised pieces.