For China’s choreographic rising star, Tao Ye, numbers hold a pivotal significance. He works in numbered series, compiling a neat catalogue of minimalist, experimental dances that can be performed alone or sit buttressed up against each other. 

Tao Ye's abstract, highly formalist approach invites the spectator to project their own impressions and experiences. They are in many ways a blank canvas. For this reason—among others – 6 & 9 is a sensible choice to open this year’s Festival TransAmerique (FTA). It’s a lithe and supple work that everyone in the audience can probably find an angle on.

<i>6</i> © Marco Feklistoff
© Marco Feklistoff

The first piece, 6, is based on choreographic research about the spinal column as the core of a dancer. The dancers, taut and androgynous in the dim chiaroscuro light, work in absolute unison throughout. They begin in a rod-straight line that diagonally straddles the upstage area, performing a litany of spine-centric contractions and sharp movements of the head. All wear black robes, scrubbing out any vestige of gender or individuality. The feeling is almost militaristic, or monkish, with each dancer an integral component of the whole. 

Repetition is very much the cornerstone of Tao’s work; it’s a way of unpacking a concept but also of capturing the movement itself and making it last for longer. As Tao puts it in the programme notes: “Dance expresses the moment, but I hope to attain the eternal through repetition and time. Repetition also represents the momentum of the dancers through a period of time: day after day, month after month, year after year. What we see onstage is a compression of their daily momentum.” 

The second piece, entitled 9, is freewheeling and light as thistledown. The number nine is significant in the Chinese cultural context. In China people say that once you’ve gone through nine stages or nine ordeals, you go back to the beginning. It hints towards the idea of a progression through limitations and returning to the point of origin. 

6 © Andreas Nilsson
© Andreas Nilsson

In 9, the dancers peel off in every direction, each creating their own universe of private fractals. They maintain exquisite control and stamina throughout. The lighting design is clear and bright, like a blinding spring day in the Southern Hemisphere, and the dancers wear a palette of utilitarian grey. This means the eye can take in the entire image of the stage at once—there are no individual distractions but simply a wide blossoming of arcs and rebounds. It’s a chaotic series of love letters between gravity and weight. 

TAO Dance Theater is a treat for those dance-lovers who like to work for meaning, as it requires some engagement to really get the best out of it. At its core, you could say 6 & 9 is an essay etched in movement, and while it may prove too stripped back for some, his deeply intellectual approach to choreography provides—if not exactly joy—than certainly an illuminating evening all the same.