Tao Dance Theatre left their Beijing audience dumbfounded on Thursday evening with a performance of weight x 3 and 2 at the National Centre for the Performing Arts. This is the first of three performances over three consecutive nights in which the Chinese company performs choreographer Tao Ye’s numerical sequence. Tao Dance Theatre quickly became internationally famous, but it took a little time before they gained recognition in China. Tao announced that he was particularly pleased to be performing in their own country, his own state and that this is their first run at Beijing’s biggest venue.

© Wang Xiaojing
© Wang Xiaojing

Two figures holding hands sidestepped in perfect unison as they maintained a measured distance. Both heads swung like pendulums, nodding floppily as their bodies spun with swift ease. Every so often they cocked a leg and let their ear fall towards one shoulder only to rebound against the weight of their heavy heads. Their rhythmic steps continued. And so it went. Fu Liwei and Mao Xue danced with placid expressions and held their level gaze, unblinking as their hands unclasped, their heads whipped around and their hands magnetically drawn together again. Heavily draped in loose white robes, their hands were not actually visible – their feet and faces are the only skin on show – which made the repeated clasping of their hands all the more riveting. Their heads gained weight, swinging them round, twisting them together and apart. Face to face, their robed arms circled like a pair of windmills at a 45 degree angle. The lights dropped, plunging the dancers into darkness while they still moved. The audience did not know how to respond, so for a few minutes we sat in silence. Finally, sparked by a lone slow clap, everyone erupted into applause. This was the first part of three that make up weight x 3 (Chinese: 重3 or zhong san).

A lone female dancer materialised in a haze of warm light, her strong body barely moving except for her raised arms spinning a stick overhead. The stick was only visible when it caught the light, cutting through the air with such speed that it was too fast for the human eye to see it clearly. Suddenly the cane dropped to hip level, slowing momentarily to twist behind her, spinning her around 360 degrees with the momentum. The torso and legs joined in, the whole body pulled around following the whirling weight at the end of a poker straight arm. Perhaps for its simplicity, this piece was utterly mesmerising. Duan Ni (rehearsal director and Tao's wife) is a magnificent dancer – she had complete control of every muscle, the spinning stick moving with her, an extension of her body. Her easy ability exuded tranquility despite the urgency of the pace and movement. Steve Reich’s Piano Phase added a wonderful atmosphere to the piece; Duan’s performance was the audible rhythm personified.

The final section of weight x 3 following Duan’s solo, was a rhythmic duet danced by Li Shunjie and Mao. They bobbed about dressed in narrow bright red and blue robes, their rigid hands glued to their hip bones, creating a yin-and-yang pair of angular shapes in complementary colours. They rocked back and forth, perfectly maintaining their rhythm and spacing as they watched the ground in front of them. Even when they moved so little, I found it impossible to tear my eyes away from these captivating dancers.

© Wang Xiaojing
© Wang Xiaojing
The expertly trained, fit Tao dancers have awesome stamina and astonishing athletic control. Each displayed brilliant flow within a rigid frame of quick rhythm and footwork. Duan Ni is particularly malleable, her lithe body twisting (seemingly comfortably) into unearthly shapes. She is outright inspirational. 

2 (Chinese: er) is a feat of magnificent stamina performed by Tao and Duan, who got engaged on stage after a recent show in New York. The couple has been dancing together for so long that each is fully attuned to the other. Whether they are still, moving in unison, or doing completely different things, it is as though they breathe in tandem. Familiar as they are, they never touch – instead they commune with the floor, from which they seem to bubble and into which they melt again. Their movement style is nigh on indescribable. This piece pushes the boundaries of dance and theatre, the pair’s contorted, mellifluous bodies twinned with an off kilter score of static white noise, blasts of an electric cello before it is unplugged, chains rattling together. Cacophony meets silence; frantic movement meets extended pauses. Tao Dance Theatre performed the unfathomable stuff of dreams.

For some, 2 may be an estranging piece. Being 50 minutes long, with just two dancers on stage, it requires serious stamina: physical for the dancers and mental for the audience. The Beijing audience had their patience tried on Thursday evening. The stillness and silence probably didn't endear them to Tao and Duan either. “Do they understand?” I wondered. I needn’t have worried.

Tao Dance Theatre pushed the bounds of their audience’s comfort levels throughout the evening, but it paid off. Tao took the audience beyond what they could have anticipated and showed Beijing precisely why Tao Dance Theatre have gained such international acclaim. The NCPA audience went absolutely wild for Tao Dance Theatre’s first of three shows this weekend.