There’s minimalism, and then there’s TAO Dance Theater. The two works that this Beijing-based troupe is presenting at the Citi Shubert Theatre Thursday and Friday, as part of the Celebrity Series season, are called “4” and “5,” and those titles refer to the number of dancers in each piece. But artistic director Tao Ye, who founded the company in March 2008, doesn’t see himself as a minimalist.
“Minimalism is just a label that has been applied to my work,” he explains, through a translator. “In fact, I had no idea what minimalism was before I started creating my first piece.”
Tao is similarly succinct about his style of dancing, which he calls “Tao,” referring not to the religious tradition but to his own family name. As for his style of choreography, he says simply, “I also don’t know where to start to describe it, as all I do is just keep questioning and exploring my ideas, persistently and stubbornly.”
Over the past six years, however, TAO’s performances have spoken for themselves. The troupe has visited more than 20 countries on five continents. It was the first Chinese contemporary dance company invited to take part in the Lincoln Center Festival, where it presented “2” and “4” in July 2012. TAO has been an artist-in-residence at the American Dance Festival at Duke University; it has performed at the Sydney Opera House and at Sadler’s Wells in London.
This all started, Tao says, in 1998, when “after discovering the extraordinary flexibility of my body, I decided to enter Chongqing Dance School. I was enrolled in the Chinese dance program, which featured Chinese classical dance, ballet, and Chinese ethnic dance. I never aspired to become a dancer. Neither do I define myself as a dancer even now. I simply see myself as being on a never-ending journey of self-exploration and questioning.”
Tao performed with Jin Xing Dance Theater in Shanghai and Beijing Modern Dance Company. Then he and Wang Hao, who was a specialist in Mongolian folk dance, formed TAO Dance Theater. “In order to create work that speaks for my own ideas and concepts,” Tao says, “there was only one option, which was to start my own company.”
Tao and Wang were joined by Duan Ni, who returned to China after having danced with New York’s Shen Wei Dance Arts and London’s Akram Khan Company. Duan, who’s now married to Tao, says she “never needed a reason” to become a dancer.
Is dance in China very different from what Western audiences are used to? “I think it would be better not to make the distinction along national lines,” Tao says. “Modern dance is a creation by humans. Although we are situated in different contexts, the time we live in is marked by globalization and the meeting of different cultures. What interests me is where the arts in today’s world are going next, rather than comparing and contrasting Eastern versus Western values.”
One thing East and West do have in common is the difficulty of attracting funding and audiences. “There is public subsidy available in China,” Tao points out. “My company recently got some funding from the China Dancers’ Association. However, such opportunities are rare because there is much greater demand than supply. The number of people who care about China’s theatrical arts is relatively small considering the country’s huge population, but you do see more young people among China’s theatergoing crowds.”
“4” and “5” are contrasted in that the quartet of “4,” moving in unison in a diamond pattern, never touch one another, whereas the quintet of “5,” whose number includes Tao himself, are in continuous contact. Tao’s explanation of the difference is that “awareness can both bond and break us.” Duan describes Tao’s choreography, which has a tai chi element, as “extremely challenging. It feels like climbing an endless mountain.”
Xiao He’s score for “4” is mostly a succession of repeated Chinese syllables in rhythmic patterns; you might wonder what’s being spoken, but Tao says that these “lyrics are only phonetic or musical sounds that do not carry meaning.” You might also wonder about the costumes that Tao and Li Min have devised for “4,” tunics with the right sleeves much longer than the left, pantaloons, and masks with minuscule eyeholes. Tao says these are simply “the aesthetic choices that I made after analyzing the movements I had developed.”
Next up for TAO is a pair of new commissions, “6” for the opening of the 2014 European Capital of Culture in Umeå, Sweden, and “7” for Sadler’s Wells. Tao isn’t worried about running out of titles. “It won’t be too terrible an idea to make only one work during your lifetime,” he says. “Numbers can extend to infinity, and the series of works that I make can be read as a chronology of my life.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the city where TAO Dance Theater’s newly commissioned work “6” would be performed.