There is something verging on the mystical about Tao Ye’s rigorously minimalist dance creations. The Beijing-based choreographer’s Numerical Series has stripped back dance to an almost forensic study of the limits of the human body, using Tao’s demanding Circular Movement System. The latest of these works to reach Sadler’s Wells, 4 and 9, provide a fascinating juxtaposition of where this can take you.
The number of each work signals the number of dancers involved: 4 has a masked quartet of identically dressed dancers locked in a diamond position and – without acknowledging each other – keeping up a constant synchronised motion to an unsettling score by Xiao He, which comprises mainly of what sounds like a Chinese take on Indian polyrhythmic singing, or jazz scatting. Their thrillingly loose-limbed movement, with swinging arms, shoulder shrugs, body ripples and high kicks, creates a swirl of energy that has echoes of street dance. Tao’s trademark extreme back bends punctuate the choreography, whose repetitions have a lulling sense, even as you marvel at the dancers’ unflagging stamina over 30 minutes. Music and lighting changes indicate four movements to the piece; when the dancers move finally in silence there’s a profound sense of a cycle completed.
For 9, the dancers are contained in a large square of light, but the choreography draws on chaos rather than order. Each follows his or her own momentum, dreamily twisting and torqueing round their axis, resembling autumn leaves caught in eddies, or, with that fascinating loose but controlled technique, martial artists practising Jackie Chan’s drunken master style. Amid all the individualised movement, brief connections seem to appear, with two dancers maybe seeing, or mirroring each other, before rippling away into the crowd. Then, as one they periodically tumble to the floor, as though felled by a gust of wind, to rise and each find their own independent rhythm once more. Standing still together at the end, facing us and breathing hard, the dancers regard the audience with a sort of defiance, as if they have come through a trial – their silent strength is strangely uplifting.