"I DIDN'T SEE IT coming," Li Chiao-Ping says about the moment that changed her life. She was riding in a car next to her partner, filmmaker Douglas Rosenberg. What seemed like seconds later, she found herself in a hospital room, a team of doctors working to save her foot.
Five years later, Li, a dancer and choreographer, has returned to the studio and the stage. This weekend her intimate company, Li Chiao-Ping Dance, performs at Dance Place. The work, "Painkillers," mines the choreographer's experiences -- physical and psychological -- during her accident and subsequent recovery.
Li succinctly recalls that terrible accident, eschewing descriptive details for blunt facts: "It happened in January 1999. We slid on black ice. Then a tanker truck slid into us. I had an almost severed foot. . . . My partner was physically unhurt." In the hospital for six weeks, Li, who lives and works outside of Madison, Wis., underwent nine operations as doctors worked to repair the damage.
"It felt like I was in the hospital for a lifetime," she says. "When I came out of the hospital . . . home felt so different . . . like this other place." Li worked to regain her strength, but her dancing had changed. As had her life.
Four years passed before she could begin to articulate through her choreography how the experience has altered her. "I had been dancing quite a bit up until that point," she says, "and the dancing came to a screeching halt at that moment. I went into a very different [emotional] space after that."
Li, who has created more than 50 dance and multimedia works over the years, many with her artistic and life partner Rosenberg, often drew on her personal stories for inspiration. Her life experience was her way to explore universal ideas.
"I think what did change [after the accident] was that I started to work even more globally, in a more community-based way than I had done before," she says. "Before I was doing so much of mining myself, mining my own movement. . . . I had to discover something that was different. I had to discover my dancers' individualities. I had to discover my community's individuality. That big change could be attributed to [the] accident."
In the 75-minute "Painkillers," Li exposes deeply suppressed feelings in an effort to both honor and exorcise pain -- hers and others. A work for six dancers, it takes viewers on an intimate journey in dance and film that culls firsthand experiences the company members had with pain, both physical and emotional.
The piece is raw and personal, hellish and hopeful. Li puts her own life-changing event into perspective as she says, "I see how much other people have gone through and how amazing they are. How heroic and graceful. I think we need to have greater respect in valuing other people's experiences and what they achieve under duress. It's pretty amazing. . . . A lot of people's spirits are very strong and inspiring."
LI CHIAO-PING DANCE -- Performs "Painkillers" Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 7 at Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St. NW. 202-269-1600. On Monday at 6, the group will present solo and group works on the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage. Free.