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A powerful cast of dancers address racism, stereotypes, & erasure in Li Chiao-Ping Dance’s “Here Lies The Truth”

Li-Chiao Ping Dance,'s “Here Lies The Truth” (Photo by Nile Lansana)

Li-Chiao Ping, the founder and artistic director of her distinguished dance company, Li-Chiao Ping Dance, premiered her new ensemble show “Here Lies The Truth” at the Overture Center for the Arts on March 26.

Chiao-Ping, a Sally Banes Professor of Dance and Vilas Research Professor at UW-Madison, has always pushed for her company to use dance as a means to promote tolerance and create art that celebrates inclusivity. It was through her teaching that she met many of the dancers in “Here Lies The Truth”, an interdisciplinary dance-theater piece that addressed racism, stereotypes, erasure, and the power of vulnerability.

The concepts behind “Here Lies The Truth” arose out of the lead-up to and the results of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election where much of the public discourse revolved around alternative facts and fake news. She was frustrated and confused about what to do with the difficult emotions she was dealing with and the shock about the influx of misinformation being highly publicized and the harm it caused.

Li Chiao-Ping (Photo: UW-Madison)

“That election process really provoked a lot of initial thinking about fake news, what was truth, what is truth, things like that,” Chiao-Ping told Madison365. “I just couldn’t believe that people were getting away with lying.”

The pandemic and the extreme events since 2020, including the numerous heinous anti-Asian hate crimes and rhetoric, made the bits and pieces coalesce for Chiao-Ping and she went full force into the artistic development of “Here Lies The Truth,” which included multiple iterations from a Zoom performance to an in-person process where they were masked. It was rejuvenating for Chiao-Ping and the cast to be together after working remotely for so long.

“The obvious problems just were too hard to hide from anymore. It was too hard to ignore. So I just started to find little ways to make up some comments and then when we put the team together…really just figuring out who needed to be in this work, great people like JP, Alfonso, Elizabeth, Kimmy, Abby,…in addition to the rest of my company,” Chiao-Ping said. “This was a case of elevating certain voices, and that representation does matter in order to say something about this very thing. So I guess I just had to start somewhere and each experiment led to newer experiments, other experiments, which led to eventually what you saw in March.”

Chiao-Ping did a lot of active listening, including seeking out counselors and fellow scholars, taking a bystander intervention workshop, and connecting to people who helped her recognize that her emotions were not invalid. She learned an immense amount about her own value and self-respect, as well as how necessary it is to recognize one’s own privileges and make space for the voices of others.

“I personally had to go through kind of a major revolution in some ways, or reckoning with life experiences…microaggressions, whatever experiences that I’ve had, and not knowing or not having the tools at the time to name it or knowing how to confront that, and not really even having older people around, like teachers around who knew what to do with that,” Chiao-Ping said. “I listened to a lot of folks who were able to name things and point to things that are wrong and actually state that, and find a community and I found that I wasn’t alone.”

“Here Lies The Truth” is an interdisciplinary dance-theater piece that addressed racism, stereotypes, erasure, and the power of vulnerability. (Photo by Nile Lansana)

Chiao-Ping has turned to dance her entire life as a primary outlet to express herself and cultivate creations that are provocative and immersive. She sees dance as an empowering tool to confront everything affecting her through the images she’s developing through choreography and communicate her takeaways and sentiments artistically. The work moves her spirit, she says, and she enjoys seeing how the dancers embody her visions and how audiences interpret the show continues to inspire her.

“Whether it’s a grant, or whether it’s a good review, or even if it’s just having people say ‘I want to work with you’ … someone seeing something of value in what you do is amazing,” Chiao-Ping said.

John Paul “JP” Alejandro, one of the ensemble dancers and a UW-Madison alum, felt extremely valued as a part of a cast that had a much wider range of representation than the typical dance world. He echoed Chiao-Ping’s sentiments about how living in a society that is so overloaded with information can lead to people often being misinterpreted, misunderstood, or ignored. It was important to be a part of a piece that was telling a story 

“The dance world is usually dominated by white women, like 90% of the field is just dominated by white women. And so my role was to be vulnerable, stand in my truth and be a body that I could come as who I am without any judgment and go to a safe space where I can present this body and be brave in my identities and how I stand amongst the world,” Alejandro said. “That’s where the idea of representation coming in, and this idea of reclaiming our identity without letting folks dictate how that is based on societal views, religious views, political views, how people feel about black bodies and brown bodies and indigenous bodies. It’s really just a very raw statement piece, where we’re going to be like, ‘This is who we are. And this is the truth, and it lies here, and we hope that you guys can see us.’”

“Here Lies The Truth” had monologues performed by the dancers along with video in the background assembled by her collaborators, who Chiao-Ping was very grateful for.

A powerful moment where text and dance merged was when Kimi Evelyn was writing on a chalkboard “LISTEN TO ME” and “I AM HERE” and another dancer, Constance Anderson, would profusely erase what was written on the board. Chiao-Ping gave the dancers free reign to move through the moment as they felt it. They were going back and forth in circles writing and erasing until Constance erased the words that Kimi wrote on her own body, which came off as a commentary of acts of erasure when someone tries to claim their identity and personhood. The intention was to attempt to understand and address the harm and hate caused by systems upholding racism and xenophobia and create something of substance out of it.

“It was really beautiful to see her in the moment, how it was coming out, It wasn’t always perfectly formed so it made it pretty authentic. I know that when Constance, the other dancer, chased after her and erased her words, Constance really shared how intense that was to physically erase Kimi’s body and push her off stage.” Chiao-Ping said. “This is a very clear assault on another person of erasing them, of making them invisible. And I was very happy that she felt that. I was very happy that she could name that feeling and that it was uncomfortable, because it should be. it would be more disturbing if it wasn’t. But I think that in a way, it was great for them to be able to experience that with each other because maybe they can understand how some of the dancers, my BIPOC dancers, sometimes feel in the real world.” 

Alejandro touched on how the model minority myth harshly affects and inaccurately depicts Asian folk as subservient and oblivious to or content with the massive oppressive structures at play. He admired how “Here Lies The Truth” is presenting the importance of having empathy for others’ experiences, genuine allyship, and giving each other permission to be brave and vulnerable.

“There’s space for healing and there’s space for the truth, all our truths and not one truth is important because everyone is valid in their pain. So I hope that the audience can walk away knowing that there is space for us and we’re not going to leave … we’re going to exist here and we’re going to keep growing and taking up space because that’s basically what we need.” Alejandro said.

In the creation process, Chiao-Ping would give the dancers different prompts that set up different situations. These prompts sparked conversations amongst the dancers that pushed them to be vulnerable on the page when they were crafting their monologues and on the stage. Some of the monologues were taken from court cases and touched on different points of view. There were many moments of trial and error, problem-solving, and ingenuity amongst the ensemble in imagining what the piece could be and bringing it all together. The time they spent together provoked a deep engagement with Chiao-Ping’s work and strengthened their connection as an ensemble, which came across in the performance.

“I don’t normally or naturally want to do public speaking and things like that. But I will craft words into something for text for a stage. It makes sense to me there and I will force myself to speak it if I need to speak it. So I will come out of my little turtle shell if I need to say something,” Chiao-Ping said. “That’s the magic of a group of dancers, right? People who will really collaborate and go places with you. So they heard me. They understood what I was talking about. They tried some things and I was able to be honest with them.” Chiao-Ping said.

“Here Lies The Truth” uses dance as a means to promote tolerance and create art that celebrates inclusivity. (Photo by Nile Lansana)

The most uplifting part for Alejandro was not the performance itself, but was instead the process as a whole. Diving deep into each other’s stories over the last six months brought the cast closer. The piece ended with four of the dancers of color, including Alejandro, standing hunched over and moving together with arms linked, emblematic of shouldering the burdens they face for simply existing in their identities and allowing friends and community to help one stay strong when they are struggling. Alejandro felt the immense power of the moment. Being in the moment, looking at each other and leaning into the trust they had built allowed for an authentic special culmination of the piece.

“Being able to show that progression and relationship and that safety that I feel amongst the rest of the cast, especially the Black and brown bodies, I feel like was that uplifting part; especially the last part, where we all basically are standing and helping each other rock. The idea of like, we’re planking and this idea of enduring all this pain from this world basically, to me, was the best part of the piece,” Alejandro said. “That entire section was a structured improv. So every time we’ve done the piece, it’s been very different, that last part. We go by feeling and it’s only because of that process, we’ve been able to make decisions that show solidarity, that show relationships and show that we can coexist without having to fight one another.”

It was an impactful and riveting ending that brought audience members out of their seats as the lights went out. Chiao-Ping wanted to have a final moment highlighting the support, love, and camaraderie folks from marginalized groups show each other regularly to combat the hardships of living amongst oppressive systems they face every day. She was very proud of how the dancers embraced the moment and lived in the piece.

“They were able to hear me when I said ‘Look, we have to be careful how we do this very ending.’ I wanted to make sure that they weren’t actually pushing down on each other to climb up because that would be a really different statement. That was not the statement I really wanted. It was not the place I wanted to get to. I wanted to help each other up by working together and they helped me physicalize that so that we can arrive at that emotional place.” Chiao-Ping said. “I think it came down to the day before the opening when we finally found the right balance of things, the right balance to make this sort of alchemy, this moment that would say what we wanted to say, and it would be an impact that would reach your heart first.”

“Here Lies The Truth” (Photo by Nile Lansana)

The talkback after the show made Chiao-Ping excited about how the show came across and how the audience enjoyed and appreciated the piece. She saw the performance as a moment of healing and reclamation. It was difficult for her to take the risks that this piece took, but she recognized that this was about more than just her. This was the ensemble’s story and she was ecstatic to let it be seen and appreciated. 

“It was incredibly raw. I felt like I had left myself completely wide open and spilled my guts. I felt like it was exhausting. At the end, I finally realized that it was this huge release. It was in some ways, maybe some of the most honest work we’ve put together in a very… I don’t even know if I can think of another one that’s more honest than that. These are not things that I share easily.” Chiao-Ping said. “The way that they received it, it just, it was, again, just like, in a way, hearing that we’re not alone.”

Chiao-Ping is hopeful for what the future holds for “Here Lies The Truth.” She feels a sense of loyalty to this ensemble and how they have embodied the essence of the piece. Fostering the growth of the performers and widening the audience are her next steps, but for now, she celebrates the triumphant moments of witnessing the kernel of an idea from 2016 bloom into an artistically compelling piece that touched the hearts of everyone involved and to witness it.

“They performed the heck out of it! They just came together. And they finally lived in the piece and I think they discovered what the piece was. So now it’s so exciting because it’s sort of, like I said, this alchemy. You put together this step and that ingredient to this other thing, and you hope it’s all going to add up. You feel like it’s going to add up. But it still takes everything to come together to make it really, really work. So it’s pretty exciting.” Chiao-Ping said.