Hypnotic, enthralling and undeniably special: bodies ebb and flow with the tide of change in Chinese choreographer Tao Ye’s 4 and 5. These are just two parts in a series of abstract works that “explore the potential of the human body as a visual element, away from the limitations of representation or narrative” and “give free reign to the imagination”. These two progressive, contemporary works were presented by Sadler’s Wells in the Lilian Baylis Studio at the weekend.

Tao Ye's 4 © Fan Xi
Tao Ye's 4
© Fan Xi

Loose-limbed, relaxed and slouching slightly, four uniformly dressed bodies swing along a simple trajectory around a bright white stage. In 4, the performers seem like points on a compass, drawn together at a central point but unable to breach the distance dividing them. A quietly confident strength dwells just beneath the surface, giving the performers an alert air of readiness for anything. They could easily be martial artists, keeping their balance regardless. The impulses propelling their limbs originate in the spine and hips then lose impetus along the journey to the periphery, their extremities remaining relaxed. Heads lollop and bounce. They swing half-clenched fists and throw bent legs in the air. Their feet are beautifully limp – neither pointed nor flexed – as they swish through space, yet are firm when placed, maintaining a solid connection to the ground throughout the piece. The four seem to think as one entity – a calm, almost calculating determination permeates the unhurried movement – but their performances are not identical nor fully in unison.

In 5, the dim lights rise so slowly that the bodies on stage don’t appear human. They sit upright, straddling one another in a row that looks like the spine of some many-headed monster. They rock and sway, softening into the ground, rolling and gathering around a central point as if glued together. They flow like lava, unrestricted, unfalteringly across the floor as one incongruous mass.

Tao Ye's 5 © Fan Xi
Tao Ye's 5
© Fan Xi
These bodies can do anything. They are so supple their bone structures are almost mellifluous. They move at one slow pace, interminably. Body parts emerge out of the melee, give way and make room for the next, like the proverbial white horses in wave tops. Spines curve as heads are thrown back. A foot is placed on a rising pelvis. A head is grasped in the nook of a knee and pushed. A chin hooks around the side of a torso, its owner propelled as the other rolls. The dancers seem placid. Their individual faces don’t display any flicker of emotion, difficulty or concentration. The tangled morass move as one, paying no heed to their surroundings – as if the knot would consume any being in its path and simply expand. They nestle into one another, completely au fait with every inch of everyone else. There’s a gentle heaviness and equal sharing of weight that makes this performance delightful.

Though a shame, I wasn’t surprised to see people up and leave in the interval. Works like this aren’t for everyone. Tao toys with the risk of presenting works in which the ideas behind the choreography are more interesting than the performance itself is to watch. Both pieces are the kind of works during which your thoughts wander, the mix of choreography and sound conjuring images up from the depths of the imagination. For me, these images are distinctly East Asian. The chant of overhead voices in 4 reminds me of Buddhist prayer, touched with the tinkle of little bells that hang from the eaves of temple roofs. I can’t help but wonder if Tao and composer Xiao He are purposefully playing with their audience – it doesn’t seem possible to entirely escape the impulse to contextualise the movements, to invent relationships or storylines. But these works allow the audience to respond in a way personal to them, which creates something entirely unique for every single audience member every single time. Tao’s attempt to “transcend the duality of abstract versus concrete thought” is certainly a successful one.

****1