writers on dancing


Journey to the Depths

Li Chiao-Ping Dance
Dance Place,
Washington, D.C.
July 24, 2004

By Lisa Traiger
copyright © 2004 by Lisa Traiger
published July 26, 2004

In Li Chiao-Ping's taxonomy of pain the body becomes both a conductor and a rejecter of its miseries. It trembles and shakes, roils and rebounds with the inner turmoil that pain sets afire in muscles and nerve endings. But "Painkillers," Wisconsin-based Li's 80-minute multimedia excursion into the dark recesses of felt experiences, also explores the emotional and spiritual effects of pain. In knitting together the physical and the emotional aspects of pain, the journey Li takes is at once harrowing and, ultimately, freeing. But first, one must get through it, which is not easy.

The work becomes more visceral and more human when one knows a bit of Li's own story: a car accident nearly severed her foot and it took 19 surgeries and rehabilitation for the dancer and choreographer to return to the studio and the stage. "Painkillers" is both her homage to her journey through pain and her triumph.

The work's nine sections are interspersed with filmmaker Douglas Rosenberg's video work and up close personal interviews with the company's five dancers on pain, what it is, what it does and what it means in their young lives. But Li remains the solid if removed centerpiece of "Painkillers." "This is a story about a woman … who looks like me, sounds like me but it's not me," she says cryptically in the opening section titled plainly "Amnesia." She balances, hanging one flexed foot forlornly until tremors begin to wrack her body. At first, the slight twitches are nearly imperceptible, a trick of the eye perhaps. But they escalate, to a rumble, then an avalanche, rocking the body with uncontrollable force.

Birds and flight play a prominent role in the work. Images of a flock of black birds on the three screens box in the blackened stage and birdlike flutters and undulating arms. Li, too, spreads and aligns herself as if ready to take off in flight: her arms weaving then stretching into an open wingspan.

The five dancers each have a solo, sometimes accompanied by video or a title on screen. All accompanied by an original electronic and acoustic score by Daniel Feller, Ryan Smith and Stephen Vitiello that ranges from motorized and garage sounds to percussion to jazz-inflected piano and bass. In "Black and Blue," Robin Baartman's handstand tumbles to the floor, her body splayed as the sounds of broken glass crunch and crackle. "Avoidance/Attraction," Colleen Stewart's solo digs deep into the core, wrenching out voluminous waves of pain. Her mouth convulses and the contractions move down to her abdomen. She shudders and heaves, dry and empty retches. With angular elbows, contorted torso, she trembles, her tongue lolling out of the side of her mouth. It's a hideous, raw solo, but one that is acutely self-involved. Her hands search her body, ranging from breasts to abdomen to pelvis, spastic and sensual at the same time. Li insinuates pain and pleasure are not so far apart in the body's nerve sensors. It's a moment that is both horrifying and liberating and Stewart's performance is at once horrifying and riveting; to look away is to seemingly deny a secret truth.

While most of "Painkillers" solos and duets are compellingly visceral, other moments are less so, especially the group sections, save for the opening group work. Additionally, that the personal video interviews only feature Li's dancers leaves one wanting to hear from a more diverse population than the five Caucasian modern dancers that make up the company. What about pain experiences of the elderly, of people from different cultures and backgrounds, of men?

Douglas Rosenberg's spatial design, the three white screen panels and two white squares on the floor extend the metaphor of pain into the visual. Pain becomes the box one resides in and the box one must escape from to overcome trauma and to discover life anew.

Originally published:
Volume 2, No. 28
July 26, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Lisa Traiger


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last updated on July 19, 2004