The UW-Madison continues its downward spin with the departure of dancemaker Li Chiao-Ping, who's just accepted a position at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. It's Madison's loss, too - Li Chiao-Ping Dance raised the bar for local professional companies. Whether you love her second-wave postmodern style or not, Li's unforgettable gems - the hilarious "Gó," lyrical "Passiflora Gracilis," the shattering "Painkillers" - net national accolades. Li's done more to put Madison on the dance map than any other choreographer in recent city history.
Li and her husband, multimedia wizard Douglas Rosenberg, are thriving here. They're both tenured Dance Program faculty and also independent artists, producing professional works in their spacious off-campus studio. Rosenberg's reaping high awards. Li Chiao-Ping Dance recently became an Overture resident. How did Mills lure Li away from all this?
The Dance Program didn't share her vision, Li says. The last straw was the executive committee's recent vote to end IATECH - the program's Interarts and Technology subfield, Rosenberg's specialty.
"IATECH is part of what drew us here 13 years ago," says Li. "Sally Banes [renowned dance critic and author of po-mo dance bible Terpsichore in Sneakers] was chair then, so I anticipated great possibilities. But for a long time now I've felt silenced and powerless. I can't be the artist and teacher I know I could be, and I want to make my mark. Mills is an amazing offer. It's an attractive college with a graduate program, good resources and a close relationship with UC-Berkeley. It's where John Cage developed new music. Trisha Brown was a graduate. Mills has a wonderful legacy, and they want my leadership and vision."
The UW didn't even make a counteroffer, Li says. But her situation is open-ended. Initially the Dance Program's executive committee voted not to grant her a leave of absence, but School of Education dean Julie Underwood went to bat for it. "Thanks to Dean Underwood I have a year to see if I really want to move," Li says. "So I may return."
The public won't notice Li's absence at first. She's currently rehearsing her spring concert, presciently titled "Arrivals and Departures," which premieres May 3-6 in Lathrop Hall's H'Doubler Performance Space. And for now, Li Chiao-Ping Dance is still an Overture resident.
"As part of ‘Women Dancing,' a bookend to my 1990s ‘Men's Project,' I've been accumulating solos created for me by other female choreographers, like the Heidi Latsky piece I premiered here in 2004 and a new work by Molissa Fenley that's on my spring program. I hope to perform a full evening of those dances at Overture next year."
The company won't feel too much of a pinch either - the troupe's in transition right now, stuck in that cyclical zone where dancers leave to get married or start their own companies, Li says. Wherever she settles, she'll have to rebuild.
I bet she'll stick with Mills. It's not because she's from the Bay Area and she's eager to flee the upper Midwest. "I love the Madison community, my friends, my students, the seniors I work with in my community dance workshops. We love our home. We don't want to lose any of that."
But don't count on the UW Dance Program to see the light before Li's one-year leave's over. She's going alone, but she's negotiating with Mills on a position for Rosenberg, who's staying in Madison and teaching in the university's Jewish Studies Program next year.
Which way does Li lean? "I'm just trying to go with an open mind and bring my full self to Mills' dance program. I feel both excitement and fear, but that's how it feels to choreograph, too. The Bay Area's a wonderful place, but so is Madison. I'm not trying to anticipate what the result will be."