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Thursday, April 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 48.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Down to earth
Li Chiao-Ping works on a human scale

Li sets aside her lyrical style.
Li sets aside her lyrical style.
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Lately I think I'm looking for sweeping, majestic art that disperses the fog of W's wars, or the opposite - flat-out rowdy protest operas to ignite the audience's rage. But last weekend Li Chiao-Ping, the UW professor who's teaching at Mills College this year, swept briefly into town with her "HOME WORKS" show in Overture's Promenade Hall. Li works on the human scale, which puts things in perspective.

She started setting aside the lyrical style she's plied the last few years in her spring '06 show on campus, returning to the earthly intelligent bodies of her earlier, classic postmodern work. "HOME WORKS" continued that trend.

The opener, "Home" (world premiere), featured a trio of spoken-word/movement odes to the eponymous theme, with a pile of cardboard bricks and smooth performances from Robin Baartman, Jessica Vokoun and Chicago musical actor Zach Zube. While reciting endless variations on the poem about the house that Jack built, they set up walls, walked percussively, skipped and rolled over. Baartman imagined her dream house with blocks; then, dancing funky to Aretha Franklin's tune about Jack's house, knocked it down. Vokoun tightrope-walked along a line of bricks, reciting a list of significant numbers. "I've lived in seven homes" (she fell back and rolled over). "Americans consume 26% of the world's energy" (a plié in fourth position).

"Home" was arresting, in its unextravagant way, but the second world premiere, Li's "Mendelsohnn Piece" - a solo choreographed for her by retired Mills dance prof June Watanabe - packed power. It's the second work I've seen from Li's "Women Dancing" project, and even better than the first. There's Li in a short brown dress, a trace of consternation on her face, isolating a shoulder, taking the beat in her hip, running in backwards S-curves, finding impulses in the music.

"Feng Shui" and "Past Forward," which fall somewhere between Li's lyrical style and her current scheme, looked better last spring. In "Feng Shui," a duet, Baartman and Zube seemed to lose their centers, dancing just slightly out of control, not intentionally. Baartman recovered nicely in "Past Forward," a sort of happy demon dance with Li and the exceptionally articulate Dianne Aldrich.

"Here lies my body, my body lies here," a work for five Mills Repertory Company dancers, dealt with emotion/body connections. I liked this young, lean, California-edged piece, popping with references to freeways, primal screams and psychological discombobulation.

I loved the Beat Generation feel of "FoRAY," the Midwest premiere of a solo Li choreographed for herself. An experimental James Grant composition with hints of Ornette Coleman, played by impressive jazzers Darryl Harper on clarinet and Lefteris Kordis on piano, fed that contextual fantasy. So did a plastic daisy planted in Astroturf downstage center, evoking Jules Feiffer's old cartoons of the modern dancer, holding a flower, dancing odes to everything in the Village Voice. Li cavorted with a mysterious suitcase that turned out to contain a tiny puppet show, with Ken dolls dressed like Yankee Doodle and a pair of toy tanks. She played with this setup, knocked it down, plucked the daisy and walked off with the suitcase. It was like a little joke on the masters of war.

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