News: Blanca Li's Elektro Kif

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Blanca Li & the Elektro Kif company

Dancer, director, choreographer and actress Blanca Li’s energetic show Elektro Kif has just started a UK tour, which touches down at Southbank Centre on Fri 2 & Sat 3 March. Donald Hutera talks to Spanish born, Paris based (via New York) Li about electro – a new dance style emerging from France…

Blanca Li doesn’t appear to have planned or plotted a flourishing career in the arts. ‘Like many things that happen to me,’ she says with typically airy good humour, ‘they just arrive.’ It could be that this engagingly open-minded, innately creative and happy workaholic has just happened to be at the right place at the right time. But just as likely it’s because beneath Li’s outwardly insouciant attitude lies an enormously strong will.

How else to explain what led the Spanish-born dancer turned choreographer turned filmmaker and actress to make Elektro Kif ? Starring eight young men aged 18 to 22, the 75-minute production marks that first time that Li’s work is being seen in the UK. ‘It’s incredible to me to be coming to a country that I love so much,’ she says, ‘and magic not only to go to one city, but do a tour – like a door that finally opens!’

Li’s entire life sounds like a progressive series of opening doors. She grew up in the Andalusian city of Granada among people who loved both partying and the art. ‘In my family if you had a love for something,’ Li explains, ‘it was easy to develop.’ At age four or five her goal was to go to dance classes. At 12 she began a three-year period as a competitor with the Spanish national gymnastics team. ‘It was a good basic training that gives one the capacity to move easily into other fields. But it was not as artistic or free as I wanted it to be. Also, I’d heard there was this woman in New York named Martha Graham…’

Li might now laugh at her own naivety, but within two years of quitting gymnastics she was in Manhattan. There she spent the next half-decade training at the school headed by Graham, America’s ultimate modern dance pioneer, while also charging round the city taking classes in as many other dance styles as she could cram into an already crowded schedule.

‘I was the bulimic of dance,’ Li jokes. ‘It was so intense. I concentrated on learning dance but at the same time I was opening my mind to cinema, visual arts, music, literature…’ Li’s education only increased after an older brother (Tao Gutiérrez , a musician and the composer of Elektro Kif ) and sister (film-maker Chus Gutiérrez ) also relocated to New York to study. In their spare time the talented siblings performed in clubs and other miscellaneous venues devising all the music, dance and décor themselves. ‘It was crazy,’ Li recalls these multi-disciplinary adventures, ‘but such a good school for me because now I love to work with people from circus or sculpture, contemporary dance or opera… Sharing a creation with other artists can make you go to places looking for things that maybe alone you would not go.’

Li eventually wound up in France with a husband of Korean extraction (hence her surname) and a dance company founded in 1993. Partly in order to pay her dancers she began accepting work as a choreographer-for-hire on music videos (eventually including for the likes of Paul McCartney, Daft Punk, Kanye West and Lily Allen ), television shows, adverts and feature-length films. It should come as no surprise, however, that Li subsequently started making her own shorts and features. One of the latter is La Défi (aka Dance Challenge and dating from 2002). In this large-scale, Hollywood-style hip hop musical Li herself plays a clingy Parisian mum whose son, a budding break dancer, runs away to learn his craft in the city’s supposedly dodgy suburbs. This was hardly Li’s initial encounter with hip hop culture. ‘The streets of New York came into my life and stayed a long time. I was there in 1981 when hip hop was, in a way, starting so it was literally just outside my window.’ Her first professional dance work, in fact, included a couple of hip hop dancers. Over a decade later, and now based in Paris, Li was invited to create a large-scale production with street dancers that became the hit show Macadam Macadam. ‘Maybe one day we can tour England with it too,’ Li somewhat cheekily suggests.

But first there’s Elektro Kif. Premiered in early 2010, this show grew out of Li’s unexpectedly keen interest in an underground dance born, she says, a decade or so ago in a discotheque near Orly airport. Originally it was labelled Tecktonik after a fashion-based brand in Paris that picked the dance up to help sell its products. That name got dropped and was replaced by electro – a full-throttle yet intricate mix of b-boy, vogue, popping and locking but with a unique flavour all its own.

The first time Li saw it – by chance while passing through a park – it was being practiced by teen-age schoolboys. ‘I thought, what are these strange, beautiful movements? It was totally new, fresh and full of a positive, pure energy, with a fast way of moving the arms that affected the whole body.’ A few years on she met two electro dancers and filmed them for an ongoing project about teaching global dance styles. A few months later they invited Li to be on the jury of an electro competition. ‘So I think, why not? I crossed a border and had the most beautiful experience. This dance was so strong, so full of life and with something lyrical and even poetic in it. By the end I was totally in love with it and I thought, I have to do something!’ And so Li set about making the first-ever theatrical production based on a young, ever-evolving and, gradually, internationally recognised dance form.

The first task was to select eight dancers potentially endowed with the right combination of technique, personality and ability to become a group. For four months solid Li shaped their disparate (and normally competitive) individual styles into something precise, cohesive and smartly entertaining. It was her inspired idea to string a plethora of solos, duets and ensemble dances along a loosely narrative through-line that follows the lads through a typical day in college, complete with tables and chairs as a malleable set design. ‘I didn’t influence the movement much,’ says Li, ‘but I composed with it. What I wanted to do was get the best out of electro by respecting the energy of the dance and the dancers themselves.’ The result, she claims, ‘is good for depression. Really! The beauty of this show is when you come out of it you really want to dance. You want to live!’

Elektro Kif is at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Fr 2 & Sat 3 March (Tickets £10 – £20)

UK wide tour dates:

Donald Hutera writes regularly about dance, theatre and the arts for The Times, Dance Europe, Animated and many other publications and websites.

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