Li Chiao-Ping Dance celebrates 20 years of work

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Friends of Li Chiao-Ping would describe her, first and foremost, as a dancer and choreographer extraordinaire. Other words that come to mind include athlete, educator and, most certainly, fighter.

A former gymnast and first-generation Chinese-American born to immigrant parents in San Francisco, Li is artistic director of Madison-based Li Chiao-Ping Dance and a professor of dance at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Founded in 1995, Li’s six-member troupe this year celebrates 20 years of dance with performances at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts.

The season will conclude with Armature: In Medias Res, a program that comes as the third in the company’s Armature series of anniversary performances. The term “armature” refers to both the frame that supports the clay in sculptures and the bodily structure that allows human beings to function and stand upright, Li says.

“It has a lot of meaning for me,” adds the dancer.

The phrase “in medias res” — Latin for “in the midst of things” — suggests where the 52-year-old dancer and choreographer considers her career. Dance is a performance genre that, due to its very physicality, chews up and spits out its practitioners on a routine basis, but Li continues to thrive.

“The term refers to me personally,” Li says. “It’s the 20th anniversary in an artist’s career, but I don’t feel it’s the end for me. I still have delight in creating choreography and teaching other dancers.”

Li, who has trained with choreographers including nationally renowned artist Bill T. Jones, knows from experience what a fleeting gift that ability can be. She has risen further than many in the demanding world of dance but also has returned from a personal tragedy that not only almost ended her career, but also her life.

On Jan. 11, 1999, Li was riding along Madison’s Beltline in a Jeep Cherokee with her life partner and frequent collaborator, multimedia artist Douglas Rosenberg, when the vehicle hit a patch of black ice. The Jeep spun out of control and directly into the path of an oncoming tanker truck, which slammed into the passenger side of the vehicle where Li was sitting.

Rosenberg walked away from the accident unharmed, but it took firefighters 45 minutes to cut Li from the Jeep’s wreckage. The dancer’s left heel was crushed and her left foot “degloved,” meaning that the skin had been peeled back from toes to ankle, exposing badly damaged muscles, nerves and tendons.

Fearing infection, Li’s surgeons wanted to amputate the foot, but the dancer declined. It took nine surgeries, multiple skin grafts and hours of physical therapy for Li to recover. She danced her first post-recovery performance 18 months after the accident in May 2000 as part of Alverno College’s Alverno Presents series.

Despite nearly 16 years of recovery time since the crash, Li struggles with aspects of the accident’s aftermath.

“I have nerve damage in my injured foot, making balancing a challenge,” Li says. “I also have limited range of motion in that foot, so I am constantly compensating for these imbalances.”

The accident also required her to find new ways to teach her students. For many months after the accident, she couldn’t move and was unable to demonstrate the moves she wanted her students to make.

“I learned to choreograph more visually than was my previous norm,” Li says. “Up until then I had to work out everything on my own body and demonstrate what I wanted. That hasn’t really gone away, but the need to be more disciplined and objective really grew and altered my choreographic style.”

Li’s history as a gymnast aided in her recovery and informs the ways in which she pushes her troupe in new directions. 

“I am a strong person and love the physicality of athletic movement,” says Li. “I also love the range of emotions and am moved by the beauty of movement. I try to showcase the kind of visually beautiful and meaningful movements in dance and draw the audience in to have an empathetic response.”

Armature: In Medias Res will give audiences a chance to revisit some of Li’s signature work cast into new forms, as well as experience a few completely new pieces that she has recently added to her lengthy and impressive repertoire. 

“I am bringing back one of the first pieces we had ever done named ‘Gó,’ based on the Chinese war strategy game, ” Li says. 

She also has included excerpts from “Yellow River,” a highly autobiographical 40-minute solo work she first performed in 1991. Rather than dancing the entire composition herself, Li has broken it into three distinct parts, which she shares with two other dancers. The program also includes humorous works like “Aqueducks,” an excerpt from larger work The Knotcracker, which bears only a slight relation to the similarly named Tchaikovsky ballet.

“Past Forward,” danced to the music of violist and contemporary composer Nils Bultmann, a UW-Madison graduate, also is part of the program, as is “Cline,” a new, eclectic piece Li says has some fun with diagonal lines and horizons. Guest dancers Susan Lee and Megan Thompson will join the ensemble for the four performances.

Li’s works offer a cross-section of contemporary dance trends and movements, but in ways that are uniquely her own. The works featured in the concert have pushed the genre in new directions, something she plans on continuing to do for as long as possible.

“I am grounded in tradition and at the same time driven like an explorer who wants to seek out new horizons and figure things out,” Li says. “Choreography to me is a mystery and I still love solving those puzzles.”

ON STAGE 

Li Chiao-Ping Dance’s Armature: In Medias Res will be performed Dec. 10-12 at Overture Center, 201 State St., Madison. For tickets call 608-258-4141 or visit overturecenter.com.