‘We live in societies in which women are still not respected the way they should be’

Blanca Li could not be busier: she is a dancer, film director and actress, and does choreography for stars like Beyonce and Daft Punk, and lots, lots more.

'We live in societies in which women are still not respected the way they should be'
Blanca Li performs a scene from "Goddesses and Demonesses". Photo: Timothy Clary / AFP

There's opera, ad campaigns for Prada and Christian Louboutin, video, art installations. Then, the 53-year-old Spaniard has this other, minor goal: make the world a better place through the performing arts.

“I am very, very inquisitive. I love to mix things. Everything inspires me. The more I see, the more I learn, the more inspiration I have,” Li, who has lived in Paris since 1993, told AFP over the weekend.

“I would like to influence the world more. I want it to change, to improve,” Li said minutes before taking to the stage of the New York City Center for the US opening of her dance performance, called “Goddesses and Demonesses.” It is an impassioned tribute to the power of women.

“Sometimes being an actress is a bit odd. You ask yourself a lot of questions about what you can do to improve the world you have around you and the people to whom you contribute something with your art,” said Li, a diminutive, green-eyed native of Granada in Spain's Andalusia region.

As she spoke, an assistant attached a long braid to her dark hair and fixed it in a bun. During the show, it will come loose and spill down her back, but also fling upwards, sideways and in every which direction, as if the hair, too, were dancing.

“Parity does not exist”

In “Goddesses and Demonesses”, which debuted in Paris a little over a year ago, Li and Maria Alexandrova, the 38-year-old principal dancer at Russia's Bolshoi Ballet, bring to life the feminine archetypes of Greek mythology, from mothers to femmes fatales, at a time when Li says women's rights are eroding.   

“We women made great strides, and then it is as if everything came to a halt,” said Li, who is married to French film producer Etienne Li. They have two children.

“I wanted to talk about how beautiful it is to be a woman” these days, said Li.

She started by studying flamenco, joined the Spanish national rhythmic gymnastics team, and at age 17 came to New York to study modern dance under Martha Graham.

Then she discovered hip hop, electronic music, and found inspiration in classical ballet. And ever since, she has been mixing them all.    

“We live in societies in which women are still not respected the way they should be. Women are still very limited professionally and artistically,” Li complained.

“In France or Spain, parity does not exist. In most things men dominate, and it is not that women are dumber.”    

Li said she finds it stunning that most major choreographers are men.    

She said that, for instance, over the course of her 20-year career Alexandrova had never worked with a female choreographer, until now in this show, with Li.

“In France, almost all dance studios are run by men. It is incredible, a country where it was almost always women who led the world of dance. And it is sort of like they have gotten rid of all of them.”

Outfits that dance

Li's daily concerns show up in her work, in her creations.

In her upcoming show “Solstice” at the Chaillot National Theater in Paris, rehearsal for which begins in three weeks, Li will depict “the relationship between humanity and nature, how it has evolved over time, how our lives and the lives of those who come after us are  going to change.”

And in another of her shows that is still touring, “Robot”, dancers and small articulated machines share the stage in an ironic statement on where technology will lead us.

Ever since Spanish designer Sybilla created the costume for one of her first ballets and then worked with Christian Lacroix at the Paris Opera, Li has made the fashion world dance.

For example, in “Goddesses and Demonesses,” Li and Alexandrova wear stunning clothes designed by Azzedine Alaia, Stella McCartney, Jean Paul Gaultier and Sophie Theallet.

The garments open and close, cover and reveal, puff up and tighten. They even take flight on stage.

“Fashion inspires me a lot because it involves creating movement in clothes, and for dancing that is very, very important,” said Li. 

 But what would Li do if she could not dance? Li finds that unthinkable.

“I have always danced,” she says, laughing.

By Laura Bonilla Cal / AFP





Meet the New Yorker who moved to Spain to become a flamenco dancer

Leilah Broukhim isn’t a typical flamenco dancer. For starters she was born and raised in New York City, to parents of Sephardic Persian heritage.

Meet the New Yorker who moved to Spain to become a flamenco dancer
Photo by Timo Nuñez

But after being inspired by a flamenco class while studying film at Columbia University she arrived in Seville in 2000 with plans to spend no longer than a year learning more about the art.  

Needless to say, she stayed a lot longer than that and built up a career as a dancer on the tablao circuit before launching her own projects.

“When I first started out, there really weren’t many foreign dancers at a professional level,” Broukhim explains. “It wasn’t that it was closed off to anyone outside Spain, it just wasn’t the norm.”

But since flamenco was inscribed on Unesco’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010, the art has seen a surge in popularity and it has become much more common to see foreigners studying flamenco here.

“It wasn’t that those in the flamenco scene weren’t welcoming, I just felt I had to work harder as it’s not part of the culture I was brought up with. I had to prove to myself as much as anyone that I deserved to be here and was as good as those who came from a flamenco tradition that goes back centuries,”explains Broukhim.

“So I studied hard, went to a lot of shows, worked with amazing people and absorbed everything I could.”

Last year, Broukhim directed and performed in the inaugural show at Madrid’s Centro Cultural Flamenco with a show inspired by Federico Garcia Lorca, a show that ran from the opening in February 2019 until it was forced to close at the start of the pandemic earlier this year.

Leilah (Left) with her “flamenco family” during a performance of Lorca Poeta Flamenco. 

“It was show inspired by the poet’s love of flamenco. He was very influenced by the music and plight of the art form at the time, it and the people who performed it were very marginalized but he championed them and in fact supported the first ever flamenco competition in 1922 in Granada.

“It was a fantastic experience, not only in getting closer to Lorca’s work but we formed our own really close flamenco family,” Broukhim reminisced.

Less than a year later and it is hard to believe that the flamenco world is in such dire straits. For the coronavirus has wreaked havoc across the entire performing arts sector not least in Spain where the industry was so reliant on tourism.

A recent report by the Unión Flamenca revealed that 42 percent of those artists professionally employed in the flamenco sector will be forced to retrain and in art that requires 100 percent dedication, many don’t have other skills to fall back on.

“It’s very hard, for many of us flamenco goes beyond a passion, we have dedicated our lives to it but right now the whole sector has been hit really hard. Most flamenco artists don't have a backup plan.”

For Broukhim though, the coronavirus crisis has provided a pause and an opportunity to pursue other passions. “It was tough all of a sudden to just stop flamenco but it also gave me a chance to take a breath and think about other things I wanted to do.”

“The lockdown gave me time to dedicate my time to yoga, meditation, to look inside myself rather than project myself to an audience and that was really valuable,” she said shyly. “It also gave me a chance to concentrate on writing my own music, playing guitar and singing.”

Lockdown saw Broukhim collaborate with guitarrist Cristian O. Gugliara and producer Fernando Vacas and launch four singles.

“It's very far removed from flamenco, more of an American psychedelic folk sound,” says Broukhim, who during lockdown released her music videos on youtube and performed live concerts on instagram and facebook.  

“The reponse was great, so I'm taking it further and have formed a band, and we're playing our first gig, in a covid-19 safe environment, in Madrid next week!” she laughed. If you told me five years ago that I'd be doing this, I'd never believe you!”.

“But we have to adapt to survive.”

Follow Leilah Broukhim, flamenco artist and singer/songwriter on Instagram and CLICK HERE for details of her next concert.