The New York Times
Ballet, Flamenco, Hip-Hop: One Spaniard’s Spice Rack
Her name may suggest a hybrid background, but the dancer Blanca Li is undeniably a Spaniard, steeped in the kinky, kitschy, hot-blooded tradition of her friend Pedro Almodóvar, complete with a penchant for high heels and drag queens.
At 37, Blanca Li is built like an adolescent boy, with long, sinewy limbs, a muscular torso and narrow hips that have been compared to a matador’s. With her high Andalusian cheekbones and throaty voice, she could easily pass for a transvestite — and indeed she has, in the 1994 French film “Pigalle.” Fittingly, the Pigalle neighborhood of Paris is where she now makes her home, in a spacious apartment she shares with her companion, a softspoken math teacher named Étienne Li. (Though they are not married, she has taken his name because it is easier to pronounce than her own, which she chooses not to reveal.) Also sharing the apartment is — unsurprisingly — a drag queen known as Lola.
Ms. Li’s circuitous route from Spain to Paris included a five-year stay in New York City, where she returns from May 2 through May 6 to perform at the Kitchen as part of the France Moves festival.
She discovered dance at 7 in her native Grenada after spying a ballet class through the window of a local school. She studied flamenco, then at 12 was accepted on the national gymnastics team. She competed for four years, but stopped when she felt that the sport was stunting her growth, that her body was still prepubescent. A year later she packed up and went to study at the Martha Graham school in New York. There, mingling with artists, musicians, singers, dancers and filmmakers, she created a flamenco-rap group.
Lacking American work papers, she eventually moved back to Madrid. When the bar where she was waitressing went out of business, she took it over. “I thought if I could make it work, I could pay dancers and have my own company,” she recalls. She started holding flamenco cabaret parties in the bar, called Le Calentito (The Little Hot One), and soon the show was a hit. She used her profits to found a dance troupe.
But she was quickly frustrated by the limits of the Spanish dance scene and in 1992 headed to Paris, which was equally discouraging for an unknown dancer: even the doors to competitions were closed. So she fell back on one of her strengths: giving a party. She rented a small club with a stage, invited friends of friends and created a cabaret show combining her contemporary take on flamenco (she danced in latex) with trapeze artists and singing transvestites. The “fiestas de Blanca Li” soon became the talk of the town, attracting the likes of Madonna and Lenny Kravitz.
She was now invited to choreograph fashion shows, films and commercials. She modeled, acted and created another dance company. In 1993 the company performed one of her pieces at the Avignon fringe festival, and it was nominated for best show.
Since then, Ms. Li has had a number of critical successes, drawing on influences from flamenco to ballet, modern, circus, African dance and hip-hop. She has a weakness for props (when dancers are too expensive, she doesn’t hesitate to haul mannequins onstage), and her shows often include a good dose of campy physical humor.
While official recognition has been slow in coming and the French Culture Ministry has denied her one of its generous subsidies, the dance establishment has finally started taking notice. The Opéra Garnier hired her two years ago to choreograph the Baroque opera “Les Indes Galantes” by Rameau and has commissioned her to create a new version of “Shéhérazade” for the Ballet de l’Opéra in December. Next January she will begin a three-year contract as the director of the Berlin Ballet at the Komische Oper in that city.
In New York she will be performing “Zap! Zap! Zap!,” a one-woman show modeled on the typical Spanish television variety show, where, she says, “You can have a philosopher, and after that a folk singer, then a fortuneteller, then a Nobel prize winner.” Ms. Li plays a virtual host, her disembodied head prerecorded for a television screen, while the real performer runs untiringly back and forth with her panoply of characters: gymnast, Breton folk dancer, opera singer, cardboard cutout flamenco dancer.
“I have so many different facets that I wanted to pull together,” she says, “like a little party for my friends.” And for Blanca Li, it all becomes one big fiesta.
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