Tao (2003) by Wen Wei Wang

My first experience of live contemporary dance by Wen Wei Wang, 2003

Wen Wei Wang

I have never seen a live contemporary dance performance before. Tao, being my first modern piece that I witnessed, opened my eyes to the theatricality, yet at the same time, the humility of dance movements on stage.

The dance started with Wen Wei Wang, clad in all white, walking nonchalantly onto the stage, drew the blinds to reveal a dancer standing, still like a statue. Then, the spotlight fell on a peacock-like-girl trotting in a “bubble” suit. I was curious why they had used the material for her costume; it made some popping sounds as she moved. Perhaps it was because the “bubbles” gave off a very fragile and transient impression, and its transparency added onto the message that it is our core (body) that is more functional and purposeful than the surface. The dancer’s movements were very creature-like, small yet swift. Her curiosity permeated the scene. All this time while the “peacock” was in action, the girl behind the blinds stood motionless, emotionless, unattached and unperturbed like a stage prop; a human prop. I thought it was an interesting concept. Usually, dancers take up a certain object as stage props, be it a tree or a flower but there she was, standing confidently, as a human.

The standing girl came to life after the peacock retired to the backstage. Her movements were more adventurous, but still very primitive. Perhaps she was another creature, coming to life on stage. I particularly liked the duet she performed with Chengxin Wei. They danced like a pair of lovers, at times shy and uncertain, at times exploding with passion.

The ensuing dance movements got bigger and more forceful as other dancers joined in. As if awakening from their hibernation and evolving into humans, the performers started to explore and experience great range of movements which were then full of exuberance and confidence. From animals and savages, the dancers later on evolved into robots and machines. There was one scene when all six dancers came onto stage, one pair after the other, jutting their ribcages sideways like typewriters. It heralded the arrival of the technological era; humans were slowly being taken over by machines instead.

There were scenes where Tao brought in a touch of homosexuality. In a rare scene, the Asian female dancer, clad in just a Chinese bath robe, danced for a bit before lying down on the floor. She was eventually unrobed by the other two female dancers, then she walked off the stage calmly, naked. It was interesting that she was unrobed by two female characters, but not the male. The message thus, clearly was not the idea of being raped—the subordination of being a woman or the objectification of the woman body. Would it be portraying the attraction towards the same sex then? In addition, it was only this Asian woman getting naked in the dance instead of the two other Caucasian dancers. Ironically, Asian women are stereotyped for being conservative and mysterious.

Other than the women, there was an all-man scene featuring Wen Wei Wang and Chengxin Wei. It must be the highlight of the piece with the most energetic and strong movements from the two male dancers. Any trace of romance between them, if there was supposed to be, was not evident, but certainly a strong sense of mutual support was exuded through their movements.

The scene where the dancers all wore long tutus regardless of their gender was especially effective in bringing forth the message of one’s “transplantation into a foreign culture [which] stirs conflicting impressions”. To further illustrate the message, there was a point where the male dancers squatted and moved awkwardly around their female counterparts while dressed in the long tutus. When appropriation or imposing of a foreign element takes place either by force or voluntarily, one is bound to appear strange because the actions do not come naturally. That reminds me of myself executing Graham movements in class; I must have appeared as awkwardly too.

“Tao reveals a circular journey, the path from one world to another. Tao is the past between two distant parts of the world through time and space”. Initially, the dancers were very unsettled and anxious, as if searching for something, perhaps the meaning of life, perhaps the borderline between the real and surreal. In the end, they were all pacified, as if they have completed their search, they have reached their destination.

“Tao is both real and surreal. Our pasts are in our dreams”. Tao reminds me a lot of a famous quote from Chuang Tzu, a Taoist philosopher that:

“Once upon a time, I, dreamt I was a butterfly,
fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly.
I was conscious only of following my fancies as a butterfly,
and was unconscious of my individuality as a man.
Suddenly, I waked, and there I lay, myself again.
Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly,
or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.”

It is the fine thread which separates reality from dream that human lives thrive on. The music that accompanied Tao throughout undeniably gave out a very surreal atmosphere. At times, it felt as if the dancers themselves were neither here nor there; they were not projecting their movements or glances towards the audience, but neither were they closing into themselves.

Wen Wei Wang, being the choreographer, exuded a sense of tranquility that is inherent in Taoism much more than the other dancers throughout the piece. Bald, clad in all white when opening the dance, he marked a salient distinction to the rest of the dancers. He started out the dance in all white and ended in the same all-white-outfit as well, driving home the point that everything that has a beginning has an end, like a circle. We come back to the very same point where we started.

Tao can be qualified as a technological piece with its high-end computer graphics. They showed the five elements of the sky in Chinese characters: earth, fire, water, metal and wood. I like the scene when it started with one arm flapping slowly like a bird’s wings and the number of arms increased as the flapping accelerated until they became this mass action of a flock of birds. The stage lighting complemented the dance very well. To emphasize on the symbolic circle, there was one point when the stage was lighted up in all red circles. While giving off a very harmonious feeling, it appeared oddly modern at the same time.

The dance movements in Tao did not appear to be extraordinarily challenging, but the dancers do require a good amount of training in modern dance. There were quite a lot of turn-outs and high jumps in the dance, hence making previous ballet training useful.  There too were certain movements which required a good deal of flexibility. Wen Wei Wang and Chengxin Wei had training in Chinese Classical Dance; this would definitely help in making their bodies more flexible than normal men.

Perhaps Taoism is essentially about being emotionally detached whilst physically involved in this world. Despite the expressive movements of the dancers, hardly any facial expression could be traced on them. I was hoping to see them in contorted faces with knitted eyebrows, but all I saw was peaceful faces, cool as cucumbers.

Even though Tao did not move me to tears like how The Nutcracker did, it certainly deepened the impression of modern dance in my life. I would love to be dancing life and philosophies on stage one day too.

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