China's Dance Revolution: TAO Dance Theater

The People's Republic is finally giving dancers free rein—with breathtaking results.

To watch a piece by TAO Dance Theater is to be transported to a world where stillness exists only in perpetual motion. In 4, which the company recently performed around the world, four dancers with inked faces and black head wraps swerve and twist in a continuous flow punctuated by human voices and the dark moan of a cello. In 5, the dancers pile into a seemingly liquid mass, as shown here, that slowly oozes around the stage. The effect is mesmerizing.

The creator of this seductive world is Tao Ye, a 27-year-old choreographer from southwest China who founded the company in Beijing in 2008. At the time, independent companies were extremely rare in China, where dance was—as so much of art is in the country—a state-run enterprise. Many choreographers who wanted to strike out on their own left the country to do so. Tao, however, at the age of 22, took a risk and stayed to form his own company, believing China was changing and that he could be part of that change. Starting in 2005, the Chinese government began promoting the 11th Five-Year Plan, and by 2007 state-sponsored dance troupes were finding alternatives to government funding. In the process, it became increasingly possible for artists like Tao to establish their own companies. It’s no exaggeration to say that the policy has turned the country into one of the world’s most exciting new scenes for contemporary dance and emboldened a new generation of choreographers.

“We don’t know what the future will hold,” says Tao from his Beijing studio. What seems certain, however, is that more like him are coming.