Paintings of bodies may capture the lushness, frailty and decay of flesh. But if vitality means to be in motion then dance, with its calculated, risk-taking motion, captures, more than any other form, the beauty of the human body.
It is difficult to describe a modern dance piece in which there is no narrative and where the music too, is not song. There is a bare music: sticks, a lute type instrument, and there are vocals but the vocals are not melodic; they are beats. To my ears, they sound like the rhythmic beats spoken alongside a classical Indian dance. I can only assume that they are the Chinese equivalent.
The first piece, ‘4’ has four dancers. There is more unity of movement in this piece, I feel, than in the second piece, ‘9’. Here, something holds the dancers together and we watch them more as a troupe. The movements are almost athletic in their precision and they are often fierce. And then, after the first sequence, the lights go down and the dancers dance together under a dim spotlight, as if they are slave ghosts on a boat, being led to they know not where. The sound of sticks and the lute music grows louder. The lights dim and silence prevails. The dancers continue to dance, even as the stage becomes absorbed in darker blackness.
The next piece ‘9’ has nine dancers. They tip back, fall, get up and then do it again, all to the sound of a reverberating echo. The vocals are like a religious chant and then the dancers become more playful – their movements somehow resemble the movements in ‘The Matrix’. In ‘9’, the dancers make, as in ‘4’, composite shapes, but we watch too the individual shapes they carve. They then move to the back of the stage and together begin deep deliberate breathing. And then it fades to black.
As I write this, I can’t help but see the irony in what I’m doing. Tao Dance Theatre’s choreographer Tao Ye speaks in the brochure of how ‘no specific words can express the meaning of the performance.’ As I watch these sublime bodies there is a part of me that is swayed as they demand that level of absorption. When we watch we are mesmerised by beauty. But then afterwards, the need arises to find and create meaning, to impose perhaps, a narrative.
Tao Dance Theatre’s 4 & 9 is a show in which movement is economical rather than sparse. And beauty is both in the shaping of the dance itself but also in the bodies who are doing the shaping. I don’t think I’ve yet got to grips with how this show made me feel – I’ll be struggling with this one for a while.