In April, UW-Madison dance professor Li Chiao-Ping was named a Vilas Research Professor, one of the top honors bestowed by the university.
She calls it a “major, major honor,” but even more significant because of its recognition of the arts.
“It’s the first time it’s been given to artists. (UW-Madison art professor) Tom Loeser and I were the first,” said Li, also a former fellow at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.
“It’s a research professorship, so it’s really validating choreography research, this kind of investigation. There are a lot of choices I’m making when I’m choreographing,” she said. The professorship “is giving weight to that.”
Her choreography, along with her academic reputation, is one of the reasons Li is one of the most recognized names in Madison’s dance world. Her company, Li Chiao-Ping Dance, is an Overture Center resident company, and this season is observing 20 years of performing its inventive modern dance works in the city.
The upcoming concert “armature: in media res,” which Li Chiao-Ping Dance performs Thursday, Friday and Saturday in Overture’s Promenade Hall, will take the audience through much of Li’s career.
The concert reaches back nearly a quarter century — even before her arrival in the Midwest — to feature an excerpt from Li’s 40-minute autobiographical piece “Yellow River,” which essentially launched her solo career in 1991.
“It was the first attempt of mine to do a piece that would be of that kind of duration, that would hold up over that amount of time,” Li said of “Yellow River,” which she has performed throughout North America. “So it tested me as a performer and as a choreographer, and it also brought me to mining my own personal story.
“It came at a really important time in my career, when I was questioning my identity as a Chinese-American and as a woman in this society,” she said. “I was really sorting things out. And it came at a time when multiculturalism, especially in the arts, was kind of bubbling up. There was a space for it.”
“Yellow River” is one of more than 130 works Li has choreographed for performances around the world. Much of that creativity has happened in Madison — dating back to her earliest showcases at the Isthmus Playhouse.
“It’s coming to a nice little landmark, I think. Madison Civic Center has become Overture. And the company has gone through a lot of evolutions,” she said. “It gives me and the company a chance to look back to the beginnings and what we’ve done in between, and where we are now.”
When naming this upcoming concert, “I chose ‘armature’ ... as a way to talk about formal qualities of dance as well as the body itself,” she said. “The armature, the structure, the thing that holds things up — the skeleton itself. And even when you look at a dance: its anatomy, or its architecture, what you hang things on.
“‘in media res’ is a literary term about beginning a story in the middle of the action,” she said. “So it’s not once upon a time, it’s not that type of storytelling. I’m using it as a method to jump right into the action.”
Other pieces will include a work from Li’s lighthearted and well-known “Knotcracker” and the piece “Go” from the company’s first Madison concert.
“When you think about 20 years back, what was interesting and quirky might be different now,” Li said of “Go.”
“The dancers were dressed in tutus and combat boots. It references ‘Rite of Spring,’ (and explores) the theme of group vs. the single individual. I was also inspired by a Chinese board game called Go.”
Li, 52, grew up in San Francisco, attended graduate school at UCLA, and was lured to Madison in 1993 because of the dance department’s reputation and history. A frequent collaborator is husband Douglas Rosenberg, a visual artist and director, and current chair of the UW-Madison art department. They and their son, a high school freshman, have homes in both Oregon and Madison.
Li’s career made an abrupt turn in 1999, when she was in a serious car crash. Her recovery was documented by former State Journal photographer Craig Schreiner, who remains a friend.
“armature: in media res” will include a piece from that period of her life, “Refrain,” which Li choreographed while still on crutches.
“One of the lessons I learned from the auto accident was that — I was such a ‘doer,’ checking things off the list, planning my future, and all of a sudden this thing I had no control over happened,” she said.
The fact that so many people stepped in to take over her work showed her “The things that I had to do, someone else picked it up. Taking out the trash, or whatever. I wasn’t that important.
“You think of yourself as ‘I have to do this. If I don’t do this it won’t get done,’” she said. “I guess I saw that I’m really quite small in this world. I can do what I can do, I do have some effect on the world, but it’s not going to stop (without me). So the title ‘in media res’ is also a kind of philosophy.”
Li Chiao-Ping Dance includes dancers Liz Sexe, who also teaches dance at UW-Madison; longtime dancer Rachel Krinsky, also CEO of YWCA Madison; Lauren Gibbs, Emily Janik, Amelia Morris and Brianna Zahasky Kauer.
During auditions for her company, “I look for people who are really passionate about dance,” Li said.
“They see it as an art form versus something that is just going to be fun for them. For me, this is my life’s work. I’m not doing it because it’s my job. I’m doing it because it’s my passion. It’s the space in which I feel most complete, in a way, the most engaged. And I love when the dancers are like that, too. I look for dancers who are artists.”
This 20-year mark in her career has also inspired Li to take more time to be still and reflect.
“It’s a time for growth for me, a time to not just keep going and going and going, but to be really alert, awake,” she said.
“When you’re young, you have this passion and energy. It’s like take no prisoners. I feel like now, I’m in a different place in my career, where I don’t have to do a hundred projects. I can really pick and choose the projects I do. And they need to be important to me. They need to be meaningful to me.”