Blanca Li and Maria Alexandrova. (Nico@Artlist )
“Eclectic” doesn’t begin to describe the career of Spanish-born dancer-choreographer Blanca Li. After training in flamenco and modern dance, Li went on to create more than 30 wide-ranging stage productions, as well as choreography for artists including Beyoncé, Daft Punk, and Pedro Almodóvar. Li makes her much-anticipated City Center debut from March 30 to April 1 with the evening-length work Goddesses & Demonesses, in which she and Bolshoi Ballet principal dancer Maria Alexandrova conjure Greek myths to explore womanhood.
CITY CENTER: What inspired you to create Goddesses & Demonesses?
BLANCA LI: I wanted to make a duet that travels through what it is to be a woman. Because the world—Gaia—was feminine at the beginning of primitive Greek mythology, I thought mythology would be a beautiful way to talk about femininity. I also wanted to show who I am today through dance. I was not onstage in my last few shows—I only choreographed them—but I still have so much to say through dance.
Why did you cast Maria Alexandrova in the piece?
I was looking for a woman who had been in dance all of her life, like I had, but in a totally different context. I spoke about the project with Brigitte Lefèvre, who was then director of the Paris Opera Ballet, and she said, “You should meet Maria Alexandrova.” So I traveled to Russia and met her. Because she doesn’t speak Spanish, French, or English, and I don’t speak any Russian, we had to dance to understand each other. We still don’t use many words, but we laugh a lot.
Was it challenging to create choreography for someone whose training was so different from your own?
It was in a way, but it’s like when you have a boyfriend: you can’t change the person. I took her strengths and did my thing with them. For example, at first I didn’t think Maria would dance on pointe shoes, because I wanted the piece to be contemporary. But Maria is amazing on pointe, so why would I take that from her? In these times more than ever, it’s important to acknowledge that our richness lies in our differences.
Maria Alexandrova and Blanca Li in Goddesses & Demonesses. (Laurent Philippe)
Your onstage relationship with Maria is fascinating. At different points, you mirror, support, and fight each other.
We’re evoking goddesses who represent opposite feelings and ideas: fear, love, death, birth, bad, good. Because we are so different as dancers, this often came easily. But there are other times when we’re like twins, with the same energy. That can be more difficult.
Yet there are moments, surprisingly, when it’s very difficult to tell you apart.
Even some of my friends couldn’t tell who was who! Especially at the beginning, when I change from black to white and she changes from white to black. Some classical dancers are very fragile, but Maria can be super strong, too. I like to play with that.
Martha Graham, of course, also delved into Greek mythology. How did training at her school and experiencing her works shape you?
I discovered modern dance at her school, when I was 18. In Europe, we didn’t have much modern dance at the time. Graham was a very strong woman, a revolutionary. She and other women—like Isadora Duncan—gave us the freedom we have today in dance: the freedom to be ourselves. I still remember seeing Graham’s company in Clytemnestra at City Center, just after coming to New York. It was amazing.
Blanca Li in Goddesses & Demonesses. (Patrick Berger)
What have you learned, both as a dancer and as a choreographer, from studying flamenco?
In flamenco, every moment matters. It’s not always about moving, but about energy. Sometimes that energy is internal, and the smallest gesture with your face or hand becomes so important. At other times, it’s the opposite: everything has to go outward. You always have to be real; it’s obvious if you fake it, and the dance looks flat. You also learn that stillness can be just as important as movement.
Your body of work has combined many styles, and has even featured robots and skateboarders. Where do you find your ideas?
Right out on the street. It doesn’t matter whether I’m in the airport, the subway, a cinema: I’m always looking at what is happening. Meeting and working with other artists is also inspiring. I love to put my knowledge to the service of something else, and it often opens doors. Working with artists from other disciplines has taught me about sculpture, opera, cinema, painting, writing, design.
You’ve choreographed for the camera as well as for the stage. Which medium do you prefer?
I like both for different reasons. With film, once it’s finished, I have to live with it forever, but it’s great to know that my work will live on. Dancing onstage is ephemeral, but it can stay with someone forever. And I can’t live without that feeling of the present when I go onstage. It’s so strong—like love.
Ryan Wenzel is a New York-based writer and editor. This interview is reprinted courtesy of Playbill.