Review: TAO Dance Theater – 6 & 8 – Sadler’s Wells

Performance: 3 & 4 October 2016
Reviewed by Siobhan Murphy - Thursday 6 October 2016

TAO '8' Photo: Zhang Shengbin

Performance reviewed: 4 October

The stark minimalism of the Beijing-based TAO Dance Theater company will not be to everyone’s liking. Artistic director Tao Ye is uncompromising in his pursuit of movement stripped to its essence. But there is something mesmeric about watching his work – allow yourself to tumble into its relentless flow and time seems somehow suspended.

The latest double bill at Sadler’s Wells comprised something old and something new. The first piece, 6, was performed there in 2014. A line of six dancers, all in black, are positioned high to stage left, barely discernible at first in the murky, shifting haze of Ellen Ruge’s lighting design. Slowly you make out they have their backs to us, bare feet planted wide, hands on thighs holding the gathered material of their skirts – and that they are locked together in a repetitive sequence of synchronised moves – bending and twisting their upper bodies, swaying their hips, tossing their heads forwards and back, sometimes arching right back, Matrix-like. It’s at once fluid and rigid, sinuous and jerkingly staccato. On and on it goes, as Xiao He’s unnerving score of atonal strings, drones and electronic pings casts an unsettling spell. At times, you just have to marvel at the dancers’ stamina and flexibility, and wonder how on earth they are remembering this sequence. Slowly, they move downstage – by this time your mind starts seeing all sorts of things in the austere calligraphy of Tao’s choreography: a moving storm front of lowering black clouds; trees buffeted by the winds; a roiling river of black water. It’s poetry in motion, and completely enchanting.

The second piece, 8, is new to London, a Sadler’s Wells co-commission and the last in Tao’s Series of the Straight Line. Where 6 was all about shadows, the eight dancers in this piece are pinned out in a harsh strip of white light. Dressed in grey bodysuits, they lie in a line along the front of the stage, hands by their sides – and remain horizontal for the entire 30-minute piece. Their synchronised movement this time is therefore much restricted – the key repetition is an arched back that pushes their chests upwards, done with graceful slowness or the frantic speed of a patient under a defibrillator. Torsos twist to the side and back, heads are turned and raised, and as a group they start to move upstage, forcing back the strip of light they occupy until it swallows all the shadow above it, before swiveling round and returning as the darkness chases them. It’s interesting how discomfiting this all is; the human form laid out and horribly vulnerable. The writhing, contorting line of dancers and the desolation of their exposure make you think of hellish hospital scenes, even as the difficulty of the constant movement – which shows off impressive disassociation technique – emphasises their strength and vitality. It’s certainly not as easy to love as 6, but its disconcerting edge is sharp.

Part of Out of Asia 2 at Sadler’s Wells

Siobhan Murphy is a freelance writer and editor, who also contributes to Dancetabs and Time Out. Find her on Twitter @blacktigerlily

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