NEW YORK — The prospect of break dancing would strike fear in the hearts of most 40-year-old women, but not Blanca Li.
The Spanish-born dancer, choreographer, actress and director, who is based in Paris, can do applejax, leg hops and handsprings with the best of them, as she demonstrates in her film, “Le Défi” (“The Dance Challenge”). Released in Europe to great success last year, the film will be introduced to American audiences tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival.
In it, Li plays a divorced mother whose son leaves home to pursue his dream of winning a break-dancing competition. When she discovers him practicing with his team, she challenges him in the competition and trades her designer wardrobe for the uniform of the ’hood: sweats, caps and Adidas. (For some scenes, Laurent Mercier, a former designer at Balmain, dressed Li in Christian Dior, Giorgio Armani and Sybilla.)
“Break dancing is so physical, but I was a gymnast when I was very young,” says Li in a phone interview. “There are a lot of things that are essentially gymnastics in break dancing. Besides, I’m prepared to learn anything.”
Soon after arriving in Paris in 1993, Li began organizing cabaret evenings in the Pigalle district. They came to be known as “Les Fiestas de Blanca Li” and attracted the likes of Madonna, Vanessa Paradis and Lenny Kravitz. “I’m a little clown,” she confides. “I love to make people laugh.”
Li’s repertoire ranges from freestyle street moves to flamenco to contemporary dance — she studied in the New York studios of Martha Graham early in her career. She first tapped the hip-hop world in 2001 for “Macadam, Macadam,” a live show that toured Europe for three years and featured break-dancers, roller skaters and BMX acrobats. (Li also has a serious side: She has choreographed for the Paris Opera Garneir, as well as the New York Metropolitan.)
Ever the multitasker, Li has even modeled for Paco Rabanne and Martin Margiela. “I love to have beautiful costumes for my dance pieces,” she explains. “I’m very good friends with Jean Paul Gaultier and we’ve talked about doing something together soon.”
— Sharon Edelson