For TAO Dance Theater’s artistic director/choreographer Tao Ye, choreography is all about stretching “the boundaries of the flesh.” It is about abstract shapes in motion, with the human body as the vehicle — no narrative, no underlying emotional subtext, just pure movement. In TAO Dance Theater’s Boston debut Thursday night, a brave choice by the Celebrity Series, the company brought two contrasting but resolutely experimental works that showcase why audiences around the world have been so intrigued by the troupe since its founding just six years ago.
Set to a score of chants and drones by composer Xiao He, the quartet “4” is a rigorous, mesmerizing tour-de-force of near-constant motion. The four dancers are androgynous figures in baggy asymmetrical outfits, black masks covering head and face, as if firmly distancing them from any sense of character. The movement is fluid, rippling, muscular. Energy seems to start with a dip and roll of the head, flowing down the neck and coursing through the body and out the limbs in one sinuous surge. Arms curve and slice, occasionally ending in a clenched fist. Legs kick, swing in wide arcs, stomp flat-footedly, or lurch into a squat, almost comical march. Floor-based flip kicks and contortions suggest capoeira and other martial arts. The only time the four break ranks from their tight unison is when back rolls send legs waggling in the air for the briefest of moments.
In “4,” the dancers never once touch. In the quintet “5,” they never break apart. Curling, coiling, slithering, rolling, the five dancers morph into one ever-evolving shape, a roiling, slow-motion mass of limbs and torsos, like some bizarre multiheaded creature birthing itself. In the dimly lit opening, it’s hard to tell where one dancer ends and another begins. Midway through, however, the lights brighten and we can see the pushes, pulls, supports, and careful, gentle exchanges of weight that sends bodies tumbling end over end. We can also see faces, eyes closed, passive, yet somehow vulnerable. It’s organic and exquisitely controlled, but at 30 minutes, too long by at least a third.
In both works dancers mostly seem to dissolve into pure disembodied visual stimuli. But at certain spots, our inner storyteller finds meaningful imagery and human connection. One of the most lovely and oddly touching moments is when the music stops at the end of “4” and we can hear the dancers breathe.