Choreographer Li Chiao-Ping Reveals the Eloquence of Honesty in Here Lies the Truth


CounterPulse performance space describes itself as "space and resources for emerging artists and cultural innovator" for creating the socially relevant. CounterPulse lives up to its aspirations with the upcoming performance of Li Chiao-Ping's multidisciplinary dance theater Here Lies the Truth. A collaboration with visual artist Douglas Rosenberg, sound designer/composer Tim Russell, and dramaturge Cláudia Tatinge Nascimento, Li's work is billed as investigating "truth as it relates to positionality, power, access and equity." Li and her collaborator Doug Rosenberg took time out from their busy rehearsal schedule to talk with Michael Phelan of about Here Lies the Truth.

Li Chiao-Ping. Photo by Maureen Janson Heintz
Li Chiao-Ping. Photo by Maureen Janson Heintz

Li was inspired to create this piece by peoples' reactions in the years following the 2020 national election, especially during the pandemic. "There were lots of very critical, very atrocious things that took place," Li says, "and it really got to me. It had been brewing over that time, since the presidential election to the point where I started to experiment along the way to address, in dance, choreography, and performance, and to see what was possible to say and how to say it." The piece evolved to include the larger issue of looking at the inequities of positions of power and social injustices.

When asked whether the title Here Lies the Truth can be read in more than one way, to mean that the truth is situated here or to mean that here the truth is a lie, Li acknowledges she means the latter. "I like the idea," says Li, "of the many meanings that can stem from it, like 'here lies John Doe', which makes me think the truth is dead. It made me consider how alternative facts and fake news could replace truth and what our roles were in complicity with that and enabling it." She went through several iterations of the title. "It seemed like a great way to describe the piece," she says, "in just the title."

The piece leaves some of the cast members feeling a little "naked," admits Li, making themselves feel vulnerable by showing their truths. "We're laying it out there," confesses Li.

The subject of Li's choreography has not always been social issues. Her earlier work Odyssey was based on Homer's epic of the same name. Li's work turned deeper when in 1999 she and Doug Rosenberg were involved in a near-fatal car accident that left her career as a dancer in doubt. The title of her work Venous Flow: States of Grace refers to a medical test that measured blood flow, which was vital to regaining her movement.

When asked why she transitioned to more meaningful subjects, Li says, "Maturing, aging. At some point you really do want to say something, and have an effect on something, or do something with your position. Maybe a reflection on my life, and feeling almost disempowered, that I looked back at the truth of my own life and wondered what part did I have in making change, changing the notion of the model minority, buying into breaking some sort of ceiling. I feel like I played the games that I thought were there, and I behaved well and paid my taxes. All the things that you're supposed to do. Maybe I shut my mouth, kept quiet. I think at some point in your life, you ask yourself about what you can do. I think it's funny. I got really inspired by the activism that was taking place around me." Li's son was involved in social activism as well. "I was really inspired by the young people. I thought, why am I so afraid to speak up?"

Li doesn't know if she has a single answer to that question, but she understands it's a way of coping, a strategy to be able to move forward. "I didn't have a lot of role models," she explains, "There were not a lot of people to follow, people like me who had similar backgrounds." Some life experiences, such as "microaggressions", suggested that she should stay quiet and not expect too much. "It was self-imposed," she says, "but I think it was societal as well."

Li is known as a choreographer who collaborates with her dancers on her works. When asked how she incorporates the dancers' feedback, she says there are many different ways of collaboration. One way is for her to teach a phrase that she's created and begin to manipulate it as the dancers learn it, suggesting alterations or giving space for interpretation and maybe take it in a different direction or add or subtract from the phrase. "Like a structured improvisation," she explains, "We begin like this. I want you to watch each other. I want you to individually perform this phrase with some alterations. Kind of like a jazz musician, where you can riff a little bit. And then come back around and make space for the other person."

The structure was "a metaphor for the work," says Li. The structure paralleled what she wanted to articulate at any moment in the work. In this case, "the structure was about making space and seeing one another." She then "sculpted" the phrase, explaining what she wanted to happen, such as helping another dancer so that a duet becomes a trio. That particular section "came out so beautifully" Li and her collaborators, "were all in tears. It couldn't have worked any better!" Sometimes, she says, the "magic" is embedded in the "recipe", and the dancers bring it all together into "this beautiful statement."

The flexibility of Li's approach applies to music that accompanies Here Lies the Truth. Sound designer and composer Tim Russell uses electronics to adapt sound to the movements of the dancers. The dancers' voices have been recorded to compile verbatim text by visual artist Douglas Rosenberg and dramaturge Cláudia Tatinge Nascimento. The dancers repeated what they'd been told about their culture or ethnic group and then wrote their responses. Some of this text is "woven" into the flow of the work. Photo collages and video are also incorporated. Li describes the performance as an "immersive" experience.

Douglas Rosenberg. Photo: Janina Isla, Bergman Center, Fårö, Sweden
Douglas Rosenberg. Photo: Janina Isla, Bergman Center, Fårö, Sweden

Visual artist Doug Rosenberg describes his contribution as beginning with transcripts of famous trials and hearing what it sounds like for some of the dancers to repeat what was said. For instance, "in the mouths of some of the dancers, and to see what it would be like if a person of color spoke some of the language that some of the defendants or a judge spoke. What does it do to the stories when someone else speaks them?" The text was put into a digital format for projection so that the dancers were "immersed" in those stories.

One of the ideas Rosenberg was working on was what happens to stories about things that are larger than a single community when they are added to and shared by other members of that and other communities? "Would those stories support advocacy and put a light on things that need to be illuminated when you speak those words publicly?" he asks, "It's a very powerful layering of movement and visual imagery, and narrative, and content, and form." Composer Tim Russell has used the dancers' recorded words to compose a score that he works on during the performance.

Here Lies the Truth appears at CounterPulse from September 29th through October 1st. For more information, see CounterPulse.

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