Chinese dance company TAO Dance Theater returns to New York this weekend with a U.S. premiere and the Beijing company’s onstage discipline. From Feb. 20 to 23, TAO Dance Theater will kick off the second annual Visions + Voices Global Performance Series at the New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. The series is an extension of NYU President John Sexton’s Global Network University initiative, created to bring the excitement and vast cultural and creative resources of NYU’s global sites to New York.
This year, the series focuses on China in coordination with the opening of NYU Shanghai. TAO Dance Theater will be presenting two pieces: “4” and “5,” the latter of which is a U.S. premiere.
“They’re extremely athletic, and it’s a powerful way to start things off. The imagery and the style is quite captivating. One of Tao Ye’s themes of his work is stripping away story telling. He doesn’t aim to tell a story, there’s no narrative,” Michael Harrington, the center’s executive director, said.
“He really presents the body as a physical form. ‘4’ is extremely hypnotic. It’s very athletic, incredibly physical. The dancers have these black masks. It’s more about the human body and less about the individual dancers or any kind of story or emotion. It creates an environment, it creates almost a trance-like atmosphere.”
Because “5” is making its U.S. debut, Harrington said that he didn’t “want to give away too much, but the premise that ... he [Ye] was playing with is a mass of bodies being connected to each other and never separating throughout the course of the piece.”
This form of abstract, modern dance may seem a reaction to standardized conventions imposed on Chinese dance starting with the Cultural Revolution in China in 1964. Xiaoxiao Wang, a graduate from Beijing Dance Academy who is currently pursuing her dance MFA at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, described her experience with Chinese choreography during her 12 years at Beijing Dance Academy.
“Everything should be representational and understandable for the audience,” Wang said. “They want to see virtuosity and technique presented by dancers on the stage. So I think our choreographers are constricted by our national identity.”
However, Tao Ye, artistic director, choreographer, and founder of TAO Dance Theater, said that his creation is based on neither the influence of others’ works nor his reactions to those works.
“It comes from a search for the source, or the truth. It’s a search for truth, an original truth. It’s a process of speaking with your spirit,” Ye said. “In China, or anywhere, if you do something political or apolitical, it’s not interesting. There’s no meaning in it, because that’s external. What you’re looking for is asking yourself, what do I want? What do I desire? That’s something real, and that’s what I’m choreographing, is that conversation.”
With his creative process, Ye said he focuses on the pursuit of quiet in a world that has become increasingly globalized.
“We know in the world too many things are happening at once, there is no time for us to go pay attention to all of it out there. We can only retain our focus back on ourselves,” he said. “Why did we stay in China? The purpose is to quiet down.
For Ye’s dancers, part of dancing for him is being able to find a quiet space.
“What I do is, first and foremost, make my dancers quietly spend more time in the studio. Their focus becomes on one thing,” he said. “Then that one thing can develop in a multitude of different directions. We start from a technical standpoint to bring it closer—from the body, from muscles and bones and breathing. So it’s a surgical process of opening up the body’s layers. But then of course you have to go to the joy of dance, the imagination, the awareness.”
Harrington was pleased with the success of last year’s series, which focused on Australia. Speaking of the connections made between the visiting performers and the NYU faculty and students, he said, “They’re continuing to talk and continuing to work together, and they’re developing internship programs for students to go down there, work with the artists, go into some aboriginal communities, and experience what the artists do on the ground. We’ve got some really exciting things as a result of this series.”
TAO Dance Theater will perform Feb. 20 to 22 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 23 at 3 p.m. at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, 566 Laguardia Place. Tickets start at $35.