Points of Departure: A Concert of Early Works and Premieres, a Li Chiao-Ping Dance presentation at the Margaret H'Doubler Performance Space on campus last weekend, proves yet again that Li, a UW dance prof, is one of the country's most interesting second-wave postmodern choreographers.
The evening was bookended by works set to experimental composer Steve Reich's three-movement suite Different Trains, dark poems to World War II. Both pieces worked well with Li's new company (only Robin Baartman returns this season). The first, "Points of Departure," a Madison premiere choregraphed in 1990, took its cues from the Trains suite's first two movements, "America - Before the War" and "Europe - During the War." As the sound images of the dome-car Zephyrs that linked the U.S. coast-to-coast in the 1940s and '50s gave way to the death trains of Europe, the choreography evoked a jig, train crossing signals, then flailing and horror. The dancers were in shoulder-stands at the end, legs crossed overhead like swastikas.
In "ETA Movements," the concert finale (set to the "After the War" segment from Different Trains), recorded voices whisper, "The war is over.... Are you sure?... Today they're all gone." The choreography was quintessential Li - shifting patterns in space, arms leading, spins, rollovers, little leaps, big lateral jumps. A few passages in this very active piece referred to the loaded words. But mostly this was pure dance until the end, when the company formed a pyramid, which Baartman climbed. Planted at the top, she pointed deep into the distance. Li's a wizard when it comes to distilling gut-level emotion, and the Different Trains dances are almost as successful as her masterwork in this genre to date, "Painkillers" (2004).
"That Ol' Ball and Chain," another Madison premiere of an early work (1988), followed "Points of Departure" with stark counterpoint. Li's created a few really hilarious works like "Gó" (1995), featuring ballerinas in combat boots, but "Ball and Chain" was the happiest little dance I've ever seen her do. Set to Hank Williams, the choreography was a little too busy for the loping tune. But Emily Miller, making her company debut, was adorable in denim capris and plaid rodeo shirt, doing a suite of cowgirl moves.
Li's as interesting in performance as she is as a dancemaker. "Board," created for her by X-treme choreographer Elizabeth Streb, is the third work in Li's "Women Dancing" series. Each of these - all solos made for Li by other choreographers - has been better than the last. "Board," a premiere, featured a dramatic setup - Claude Heintz's high-contrast lighting and a blond two-by-four spinning like a propeller above gray landing mats. Li, in black tank top and pants, played a physical game of risk, diving over and under the moving board with fierce intensity. In a grand act of deconstruction, she revealed her exhaustion at the end.
Two works on the program were less successful. "Feng Shui," which I've seen twice before, is just a vehicle for Li's technique. Similarly, "Dhanistha, the 23rd Asterism" failed to live up to the Indian astrology patterns it was named for. But four hits on a six-work program is fine with me; I can't wait to see what Li does next.