Artist & Educator Li Chiao-Ping Comes Full Circle, Apr 2007

By Nicole Zvarik


A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Li Chiao-Ping has come back to us. After a long time professorship at University of Wisconsin, Chiao-Ping is now a professor of Dance at Mills College in Oakland. Her work has been presented throughout North and South America, including New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, Toronto, the International Festival of Video and Dance in Argentina, and the American Dance Festival. She has received numerous grants and awards for works such as “Yellow River” and “The Men’s Project.”

Local choreographer and recent Mills alumna Nicole Zvarik recently caught up with Chiao-Ping to find out more about her return to the Bay Area and her upcoming show at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts on March 30-31.

Nicole: You taught at Madison from 1993-2006, established a successful performing and touring career, developed the dance community through programs like the Madison Dance Alliance, and had tenure. What made you decide to leave this behind and come back to the Bay Area?

Chiao-Ping: Mills presented a unique opportunity for me; my sense from the department was that it was in transition and in need of new leadership and vision. Their invitation to me to come into a tenure track line and help guide it in new directions and build upon its already rich legacy, seemed directly in line with my focus on the state of dance in higher education. This is a critical moment and the time is before us to re-consider and re-think dance degree programs across the country for the training of dance artists and scholars for the 21st century. So, why come here? Family, friends, a productive and engaged dance community within a culturally rich and diverse population, a fine faculty of artists-scholars, and the chance to develop and create a leading program while also participating in the artistic dialogue of the Bay Area. I can still perform and tour, regardless of where I am.

Nicole: How is it being back? Professionally? Artistically? How do you see your work in the context of the wider Bay Area modern dance scene?

Chiao Ping: It has taken me more time than I anticipated to adjust to life here. My husband Douglas is still back in Wisconsin, while we figure out our best options, for quality of life and careers, so it’s been an intense, unsettling period. It’s a bit of a culture shock but it may have to do more with Mills than the Bay Area, although I have to say that traffic is a bother and the lack of public transportation like what exists in NYC is a real shame. I am really enjoying being among peers, among other artists who are working at the same level, who might be in similar places in their careers as I am. And, I’m also happy our son has had more interaction with our families (Douglas is originally from this area, too). Also, I’d usually have to fly to New York to see Pina Bausch’s latest or Robert Wilson’s work, but it’s really lovely being able to find both the programming and audiences for the work of major and emerging artists right here. I was excited to see Sankai Juku again and seeing a full house on a Tuesday night says something about the Bay Area dance audience and community. I am presenting a program of my work at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts at the end of March (30-31). I’m not sure how I fit in yet. I’m certainly enjoying seeing what is going on here.

Nicole: In 1999 you performed “Men’s Project,” six different solos choreographed by Gus Solomons Jr., Joe Goode, David Dorfman, Daniel Nagrin, Mel Wong, and Mark Dendy. Now you are creating a similar piece, “Women Dancing,” with choreographers such as Molissa Fenley and Heidi Latsky. Was the goal of this piece to experience how men and women choreograph differently? What discoveries have you made?

Chiao Ping: I have been very lucky to have the opportunities to work with such interesting, renowned choreographers. Taking on “The Men’s Project” ten years ago was one of the most artistically challenging and rewarding experiences in my career, and now, I have decided to tackle a bookend project with “Women Dancing”. Looking back, the training for “Men’s Project” was like getting ready for the Olympics…but harder. I had to be there physically like an athlete, but the demands on me artistically to transition from one piece into another in one program, and to do so with the respect and attention each one deserved and demanded, was Herculean. I must be crazy, but here I am again and ten years older, post auto accident, post pregnancy. I’m still in the acquisition stage although I’ve performed some of the works individually. I’ve worked with Heidi Latsky, Molissa Fenley, Elizabeth Streb, my good friend Cynthia Adams, and now I’m working with June Watanabe. I’m next going to work with Victoria Marks and Bebe Miller. In MP, it was intriguing to see if and/or how gender came into play working with the male choreographers. For some, it was a non-issue, meaning that the dance was weighted more towards abstraction. For others, the soloist is definitely a female body and the intention of the work would change dramatically if performed by a male soloist. Other types of questions are coming up with the current project with female choreographers. First, we are all women, and most are still performing, so differences in movement styles and ability come up more readily, although these were certainly factors in MP as well. For me, that’s part of what is so fascinating, seeing how each choreographer negotiates these differences while maintaining their personal and unique stamp on the artistic product. Having such an in depth look into each choreographer’s creative process has given me an incredibly broad view of our art form.

Nicole: You have been classified as a postmodernist in reviews of works like “Laughing Bodies, Dancing Minds” (2005). Would you agree with this classification? If so, is it still apt? Were there particular choreographers from the era of postmodernism in the ‘70’s that have influenced you?

Chiao Ping: I don’t particularly have much faith in labels. We seem pretty far beyond “postmodern” actually, we must be post postmodern, although I’m not sure what the term means today. I’ve got a huge toolbox of choreographic methods from which I may draw given the conditions of the work. These are all means to an end. Both means and end are important to me. I have been using “neo-classical postmodernist” for myself at times simply because we are all fairly far removed now from the climate which sparked those radical movers of the 70’s. As a young dance artist, I was really inspired reading about Trisha Brown and Twyla Tharp’s early work. I think the questioning is what’s important- always was, still is.

Nicole: Personal experience seems to be a strong presence in your more recent choreography, such as in 2004’s “Painkillers”, based on a serious auto accident you were in. Are you continuing to work from this approach and if so in what projects? Why do you think you are drawn to this approach?

Chiao Ping: When I was rehabilitating from my injuries, I had an epiphany and discovered a sense of self in relation to community and beyond. I found myself connected in such a way that my work began moving away from the superhuman virtuosic dancing that I’d become known for and loved so dearly, to embrace the fragility of our existence and universality of our individual travails through life, thus causing an expansion of ideas about dance and who/what/why/where/how I envisioned these physical bodies moving. I suppose this is how I was tagged “postmodern”, but it wasn’t that I was saying “no” as Yvonne Rainer’s “No Manifesto” did in ’65, but that I was saying “yes”. I’m still investigating the personal within work; from my first evening-length solo “Yellow River”, which I premiered back in 1990 at Theater Artaud for the SF Mozart and His Time Festival, to now with “Side Walks: Dancing Stories of Border Crossings”, I find there’s still something there.

Nicole: “Painkillers” is one of many pieces for which visual artist Douglas Rosenberg, your husband/longtime artistic partner collaborated with you. What recent collaborative projects have emerged from your individual artistic paths?

Chiao Ping: We just completed a series of dance for the camera works for Wisconsin Public Television, mostly produced by WHA-TV, with one co-produced by Bravo! FACT in Canada. These were all site-specific works, created in the various landscapes (mostly rural) outside of Madison (WI) during late fall of 2005. I have been teaching movement workshops at senior centers since 2000 and incorporating participants from these workshops into my artistic work. The first project was a collaboration with Douglas titled “Venous Flow: States of Grace” in 2000 and it was such an amazing experience, I continued to teach in community centers and schools over the next several years, bringing in new projects. Over the years, Douglas has developed a very strong connection with the Wisconsin landscape and its seasons. Out of this grew his concept for this exploration. Douglas directed and I choreographed “Verge”, with a large, intergenerational cast of 20 dancers and community performers; with opening shots of people rising out of the field and mixing with the dirt in a wooded area, we portrayed a group of individuals each connected to the other, with a sense of cooperation and respect for their environment. I also co-choreographed two of the other works, which Douglas co-directed with Allen Kaeja- “Site” and “Terrain”. “Some have already been broadcast on public television, on Bravo in Canada, and in screen dance festivals. I believe they’re in Buenos Aires right now.

Nicole: Has your experience at Mills, as compared to Madison, influenced the artistic directions you’re taking now?

Chiao Ping: It’s too soon to tell. The two places are like apples and oranges. I’m making a solo for Tammy Cheney–that feels right for now. I’m feeling a little more settled and enjoying my classes at Mills.

Nicole: What can the Bay Area expect to see from you in 2007? What are your upcoming artistic goals?

Chiao Ping: Our first show in 2007 out here is at the end of March 30-31 at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts. For 2007, I am working on my “Women Dancing” project and a new project “Side Walks: Dancing Stories of Border Crossings”, an umbrella title for works which explore ways in which we define ourselves. My new works “Home” and “FoRAY” are parts of this broad investigation. Besides completing these projects, I will be touring my “Laughing Bodies, Dancing Minds” piece, with support from a grant we (LCPD) received from the National Endowment for the Arts. We’re headed to NY, back to WI, and working on stops on this coast.

Nicole: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Chiao Ping: Let’s add 6866886 to 8688668–hah, that’s my son’s joke. I am excited to see a renaissance in the dance scene here and hope to take part in the dialogue. Happy New Year!

This article appeared in the April 2007 issue of In Dance.