Dancing Thru Hell and Back
Li Chiao-Ping, still on the mend after an accident that badly injured her left foot, returns to the stage Saturday
Tom Strini, Tap Milwaukee
May 7, 2000
On the morning of Jan. 11, 1999, a Jeep Cherokee hit a patch of black ice and started to slide across the Madison Beltway. Seconds later, a tanker truck slammed into the passenger-side door.
Behind that door was Li Chiao-Ping -- dance professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, choreographer, and one of the fiercest and most original soloists in all of dance. It took 45 minutes for firefighters to cut Li from the wreckage. Her left heel was crushed, and her foot was "degloved": All the skin was peeled away from toes to above the ankle. Tendons, nerves and muscles were badly damaged.
Li entered dancers' hell that night, and she isn't out of it yet. But the gates of hell are slowly yielding to her awesome determination.
Her first performance since the accident will take place Saturday in Milwaukee on the Alverno Presents series.
"The doctors wanted to amputate the foot," said Li, 36. "They were afraid of infection, because of the degloving. They came to understand that we would not accept `no' for an answer."
The other half of "we" in her story is multimedia artist Douglas Rosenberg, her frequent artistic collaborator and life partner since 1990. He was driving the Jeep but escaped unharmed.
"He was my champion in the hospital," Li said, her voice full of affection. "I was afraid to be left alone; he stayed in my room for a week. He slept on a futon on the floor."
She was to have given a concert in Madison a month after the accident. She postponed it until September and assumed that she would be in good enough shape to dance then. Everyone knew that she would not, but no one was anxious to make that clear to her.
"At the time, it would not have been good for my mental health," Li said. "It was important to just say, `We'll solve this, we'll heal this, we'll get back to normal and do whatever it takes to get there.' "
What has it taken so far? Endless and sometimes torturous physical therapy. Nine surgeries to repair the foot and ankle, with more possible. Many skin grafts, taken from her back, which consequently was weakened and now requires physical therapy of its own. A metal brace that was screwed into the bones of the foot and shin to stabilize the area and allow the grafts to take.
"The grafts looked like pieces of pigskin stuck to me," she said. "I felt like Frankenstein."
The foot and ankle still look bad, but appearance is the least of Li's problems. The worst of them is the scar tissue that has enveloped joints and ligaments, adhered to muscle and bone, and cemented her foot into flexed position. She cannot point her toe or raise her heel from the ground.
Matt Peterson, a physical therapist at the UW Hospital Sports Medicine Center, has worked with Li since August. Surgery to remove some scar tissue is an option, he said, but one with no guarantees and no way to reverse any ill effects. Scar tissue can grow back, and surgical incisions can prompt the growth of more scar tissue. For now, Li's medical team, which includes orthopedic surgeon Laura Prokuski and plastic surgeon Stephen Hardy, will stay with non-invasive techniques such as massage and ultrasound.
"There is room for improvement in flexibility with those techniques, and we're making some progress," Peterson said. "Unfortunately, it's slow progress, and that's the cause of some frustration. At times the pain is severe, especially because she is trying to be as active as possible and places a lot of demands on the ankle. She's highly motivated and diligent, partly because of her personality and partly because of the demands of her profession."
Reaching a New Level
Li's struggle to regain full use of her own body is half her battle. The other half is the necessity of finding new ways to convey ideas to dancers. The four ensemble pieces to be shown at Alverno were made just seven months after the accident, for last September's concert.
"I always relied so much on myself, my own body, that I sometimes got lost in the physicality of it," Li said. "The physical feel informed my choices as a choreographer, it told me where the dance had to go. I relied on that intuition."
She couldn't do that last August, when her company of Madison and New York dancers assembled in Madison for two weeks of intensive rehearsal.
"It was a healing process for me to go back to work, to attend to my art," Li said.
"We catapulted ourselves to a new level. I taught five dances in two weeks. The dancers took charge and came through. They danced better than they did when I was dancing with them. I've become a better director, a better critic of my own work. Because I was outside of it, I could be more objective and constructive."
Broader Sense of Dance
Li believes that the change in perspective as a result of the accident is having a profound effect on her work.
"My sense of design as part of the kinesthetic experience is much more acute," she said. "I used to have to feel everything, now I see it. I see the whole picture, not just the steps. I was such a dancer before . . . that can be boring, a dancer moving around, showing off. I have less patience for that. I feel that the work has become more contemplative and also has more of a sense of community about it."
One piece -- "Venous Flow: States of Grace," a collaboration with Rosenberg -- was inspired by a device that measured the flow of blood through her ankle. It made blood flow audible. Li and Rosenberg found that sound of healing a great comfort, and it led to a dance on themes of hope and renewal.
Testing the Limits
Li is not a cheerful, chirpy poster-girl for post-trauma courage. She is calm, focused and thoughtful, with a barely perceptible tinge of melancholy about her. The longer we talked -- over coffee, outdoors, on a sunlit afternoon in Madison -- the more apparent it became that she was holding herself together by a sustained act of strong will. She's been doing that since January 1999. She has a rational, disciplined way of putting her situation in perspective.
"In the hospital, I discovered that there are many sick and injured suffering people around us," she said. "Many suffer more than I have. I don't think I paid so much attention to that before. I'm doing pretty darn well for someone who's had a near-amputation."
Li will return to the stage with "Chair," by Molissa Fenley. Fenley, a New Yorker famous for her intensely athletic solos, made this piece for herself after she suffered a serious knee injury, an anterior cruciate ligament tear. It was the first of a trilogy of pieces that tested the limits of what she could do at each stage of recovery. When Fenley, who was in residence at UW-Madison in 1998, heard about Li's injury, she gave Li the rights to "Chair" free of charge.
"I've known Douglas and Chiao-Ping for years," Fenley said by phone from Santa Fe, N.M. "All of us in the dance world were mortified to hear about the accident.
"When I was coming back from my injury, part of my personal healing was to keep choreographing no matter what. So I went to the studio every day. This old chair was in the corner, and I thought, hmmm, let's see what I can do sitting on a chair -- which was what I could do at the time.
"So I started experimenting; it's actually quite a successful piece. The image behind it was of being over water, and of dipping into water or flying over water. It's the sort of thing that promotes spiritual healing. It seemed natural to give it to Chiao-Ping."
Fenley last performed "Chair" in 1997. She has given it to no one other than Li.
"What happened to me happens to all dancers, eventually," Li said. "I basically turned 80 last year; it was an early birthday. But if you're an artist, you find a way to keep doing it. Beethoven went deaf; if you have passion, you go on."