The room is pitch black. Sound reverbs out of the darkness; a drumbeat, regular, yet syncopated. Intertwined with the drumbeat, the complex rhythms woven by an erhu – the two-stringed, Chinese fiddle – repeated, again and again. Slowly, the darkness is shed to reveal the contours of a group of dancers, clad in flowing, full-length costume. Whether men or women – their close-shaven heads and expressionless faces make it impossible to tell, and even though the bodies of the TAO Dance Theatre ensemble are unbelievably pliable, nothing about this performance indicates that body, or for that matter gender, is an issue. In fact, The Sami Chinese Project is as abstract as a Chinese character might be to Westerners. Or as unintelligible as the guttural, chanting voice, which, later on during the evening, takes over the soundscape with moans and vocal expressions borrowed from Peking, Mongolian chant and Sami joik.

The Sami Chinese Project marks the inauguration of Umeå Cultural Capital of Europe 2014, and the Stockholm performances at Dansens Hus signal the end of the Swedish tour. It has been the ambition of Anneli Gardell, the new Artistic Director of the venue, to connect traditions from opposite sides of the globe. This production may be interpreted as an artistic expression of the belief in the universal aspects of human experience. When these two different cultural traditions are joined, one expression which may be perceived as “otherness”  when standing on its own takes on a new, universal meaning when merged with the other.

The Sami are the small Finno-Ugrian population inhabiting the Arctic region of northernmost Europe, who until this day have protected a tradition of ancient shamanic beliefs and expressions typical of indigenous hunter-gatherers – a civilization as ancient as the Chinese. This process-driven project has involved residencies: the Sami artists residing in bustling, multi-million Beijing over a longer time period, and the TAO Dance Theater discovering the vastness of northernmost Sweden, where the nomadic community of merely 5,000 Sami live. Musically, the imagination of celebrated Chinese avant-garde folk-rock composer Xiao. He has been infused with the Sami heritage – this evening, he performs live, side-by-side with Sami composer Simon Issát Marainen.

When the group of dancers bend, writhe and spin in parallel patterns in the top left corner of the stage, they seem neither human nor beast. Rather, they take on the quality of body sculptures, as their torsos and shoulders become separate, twirling entities.  Moving in space, these bodies inhabit the dimly-lit stage with life devoid of any obvious meaning. As the rhythm of their bodies interlaces with the complex patterns of the musical score, the unceasing motion becomes more and more unsettling. The light flickers across the stage, moving in patterns which never recede into complete darkness, neither brighten enough to reveal any details. The absence of natural breathing space, the lack of punctuation or exclamation marks, generates an uneasiness within the spectator. Are we observing the automatic motions of the masses of people moving across the streets of Beijing at dawn? Or the instinctive movements of a flock of reindeer in the snowy Swedish highlands? Gradually these untiring shapes start to work on our subconscious, raising existential questions. And frustration. Does their journey have a goal? Will this ever end? 

Our relief is substantial when the motion suddenly stops. Music fills the stage, we listen rather than watch. When a virtuoso solo dancer enters the stage for the finale, accompanied by the spiritually infused chant of the joik, the effect is breathtaking. His technical proficiency transcends conventional notions of beauty. This stunning dancer – taller and more statuesque than any of the others – moves with the grace of a tree swayed by a spirit wind, and the instinctual quickness of a reptile. As a spectator, I become so involved that my own body wants to mirror his, as he explores the surrounding space without paying attention to boundaries or physical limitations. The exhilaration is physical as much as it is spiritual, and leaves me at a loss for words.

What have I seen? A girl behind me comments on the surreal nature of the experience. Perhaps we, as spectators, would have needed some sort of spiritual preparation in order to be completely open to the impact of TAO Dance Theater. But raising awareness may also be an important part of the performance. This company since it was formed in 2008 has rapidly become the toast of the contemporary dance scene. The gradual movement away from naturalism towards abstraction may well explain the popularity of the group. The Sami Chinese Project manifests dance as thought-provoking, abstract art – but without religious, political or cultural connotations.