On a chilly March afternoon in a nondescript studio in midtown New York, the celebrated Spanish dancer and choreographer Blanca Li was warming up at a metal barre. Dressed in a grey hoodie and loose, black sweatpants, the diminutive 53-year-old alternated putting one leg up on the barre and then bowing forward.
As occasional car horns and operatic singing from an adjacent studio filtered through the window, she took herself through a series of movements, massaging her outstretched legs and feet, holding onto the barre from above while lunging, later moving to the floor where she does bridges and stretches out her back. Then she removed her hoodie, revealing a sinewy back and arms and began to dance facing a wall of mirrors, sweeping her arms around her like a miniature storm—brewing, bowing, kicking, breathing harder, her tightly pulled ponytail eventually coming undone. In movement, she seems to grow a foot in height and presence.
Li was in town ahead of the New York premiere of her work Goddesses & Demonesses, which she choreographed and in which she also dances, opposite the Russian Bolshoi ballerina Maria Alexandrova. The full-length piece, which first premiered at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris last year and runs from March 30-April 1 at New York City Center, is a multi-layered investigation of female roles, both in general and in the history of dance, as explored through the interactions between Li and Alexandrova.
"At this moment, I think it’s very important to talk about femininity and women’s position in the world and what is happening,” said Li, who in 1993 founded her contemporary dance company in Paris for which she has created over 30 original works over the years. “For me, dance is always a way of talking about things I cannot say with my words but I can say with my body. And I would like people to feel the femininity of the woman, the power of the woman and how we could be really equal in this society.”
Li first started thinking about Goddesses & Demonesses three years ago. She had stopped dancing full-time with her company, a product of both the changes in her body over time and a desire to find a more personal means of expression. As she tried to reinvent herself as a dancer, she looked to ancient mythology and the representations of women therein. Taken with the depictions of goddesses, she dreamed up a work in which she would pair with another woman. Knowing she wanted a classical dancer—someone who would be a foil to her multi-disciplinary, contemporary aesthetic—she met on a friend’s recommendation with Alexandrova at the Bolshoi headquarters in Moscow.
“I realized she didn’t speak English. And I didn’t speak Russian. It was funny because we couldn’t really talk. So we started to dance. I started to show her things and she started to show me things. It was like we could speak to each other, but we couldn’t, really,” Li recalled of their first meeting. “To see her in her pointe shoes in the Bolshoi, doing these amazing ballets was very interesting because I thought, ‘She has something I don’t have. And I have something she doesn’t have.’”
The pair flew back and forth between Paris and Moscow as they worked on Goddesses & Demonesses, crafting the choreography through this interpretive exchange. The resulting work unfolds over twelve stages or scenes, beginning with a more peaceful, solemn air and then, as Li puts it, “the animal, the emotion starts to come out.” At times, Li and Alexandrova emphasize their opposite natures and dance backgrounds; at others, the two come together, mimicking each others’ movements until they seem to submerge into one being.
“This is a very strong part of the show, to not only represent one type of woman,” Li explained.
For the costumes, she reached out to a quartet of friends in high fashion places. More specifically, she had Jean Paul Gaultier, whose shows she has choreographed over the years, adapt two dresses, one black, the other white, from an haute couture show. Azzedine Alaïa (whom Li describes as “like family…I go many times to see him, to kiss him, to talk to him about life and to cook together…”) provided four looks, among them a ready-to-wear dress for Li that she dances in without any adjustments and a classic, wasp-waisted, wide-hipped signature Alaïa concoction for Alexandrova specifically (the prima ballerina’s pointe shoes added a very different dimension to the dress’s proportions). And Sophie Theallet and Stella McCartney also dreamed up witch-like muslin dresses and red and blue gowns and colorful, nature-inspired pieces, respectively.
“They all have very different energies and I thought it would be nice not to have just one person making all the costumes,” Li said. “Also, all of them are people I love very, very much.”
Born in Granada and growing up in Madrid, Spain, Li began her creative life as a flamenco dancer and a rhythmic gymnast, competing on the National Spanish Team at the age of 12. She headed to New York when she was 17 to study contemporary dance at the Martha Graham School and it was while there that she discovered a panoply of dance forms, from hip hop to African dance, and honed her voice as a choreographer. After some time back in Spain dancing flamenco, she moved to Paris with her mathematician husband and founded her company.
Over the twenty plus years since she started Blanca Li Dance Company, she has created works that cross all dance mediums. The 1999 Macadam Macadam played with hip hop, skateboarders and BMX on a half-pipe ramp. Her 2013 piece Robot featured a “smart robot” who danced alongside humans. In addition to her company work, Li has also done choreography for Beyoncé, Daft Punk, Paul McCartney, Michel Gondry and Pedro Almodóvar—conceiving of a particularly memorable performance of The Pointer Sisters' "I'm So Excited" in the director's comedy of the same name—and, she has directed five films herself. Needless to say, she is a widely known artistic figure in European circles.
But the upcoming performances of Goddesses & Demonesses mark only the second time she has shown a work in the United States (the first was when Robot traveled to BAM in 2015). Some creative figures of her stature might chafe at being such a new entity to their audience. Li sees it as an opportunity.
“Here, people don’t know me at all and are discovering me. It’s beautiful, in a way, to be in this situation. You have to [examine] what you do, why you do [it]. We artists always have to start from the beginning. That’s the beauty of life—you have to always keep the flame,” Li said. “This is where I learned to dance and really developed as a dancer and a choreographer. So coming back, I feel like I bring it to New York because New York gave it to me.”
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