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Flash Review 2, 9-7: Trance Dance
Blanca Li Meets Gnawa

By Bettina Preuschoff
Copyright 2001 Bettina Preuschoff

HAMBURG -- Blanca Li, Spanish-born, American-trained, and resident French "enfant terrible" opened the International Summerfestival Laokoon last week with "Nana & Lila," a melange of works drawing on everything from the flamenco of Ms. Li's native country to Moroccan gnawa trance music, as you'd expect from a crossover specialist like Ms. Li.

A member of the Spanish National Gymnastic team before studying Graham technique in New York for five years, Ms. Li returned to Spain to see her company selected to perform at the World Exposition in Seville. She next opened what became the hippest bar in Madrid, where the basement was turned over to flamenco and the regulars included enfant terrible film-maker Pedro Almodovar, who would cast Ms. Li in his film "Kika."

Mini-careers modelling for Paco Rabanne and singing with legendary producer Malcolm McLaren followed before she settled down to choreographing for operas and video. Ms. Li's solo performance at The Kitchen was a smash hit of the recent NYC France Moves festival, and later this year she'll choreograph her own version of "Scheherazade" on the Paris Opera Ballet.

"Nana & Lila," created in 1993, led to a European tour for Ms. Li, who has re-worked the piece in recent years into a mosaic of five contemporary choreographies.

The first part of the evening contains three pieces: "Romance," "Minera," and "Nana."

Four female dancers enter the stage with linear force in "Romance," discovering the space to the lyrical and rhythmical voice of Juana la deal Cepillo, giving the flamenco song, "Por los Campitos de Batalla."

In front of a blue background the linearity of this group choreography evolves into an exchange with a flamenco-based, sentimental solo by another woman.

In "Minera," Ms. Li displays her qualities as a soloist at their best, exploring the possibilities of flamenco in her own way, enjoying herself in each moment. Moments of silence in which she resembles a Greek statue alternate with powerful sequences in which she developes the image of a strong contemporary woman.

In the third section, "Nana," the whole company dances in front of a red background which gives a natural mood of power (womenpower!) and joy.

It's wonderful to see this technically developed company dancing together, with all the dancers reaching the high level of the various techniques demanded by Ms. Li.

For "Lila," a collaboration with Gwana Halway, a group of musicians play traditional Gnawa music live on stage. Ms. Li developed this piece after observing the trances that envelope participants during the Lilas(traditional ceremonies) in Morocco, where she lived for five years.

White-veiled dancers sit on the stage, moving just their heads and upper bodies, as if falling into trance.

After a while, you feel that it's not just *like* going into trance -- you see that each of the dancers is going into a kind of trance, but without imitating a traditional ritual. That would be ridiculous. Instead, you feel that each dancer has found a personal ritual without forgetting her own personal, cultural background. It's a kind of individual catharsis.

The tension builds, with the aspect of each performer becoming more and more explosive and ecstatic -- their moods fed by Halway's potent live score. They take up more and more space, each performer exploring her individual movement capacity. Even sitting in the audience, I began to move, finding it impossible to stay immobile.

The reaction of the rest of the audience varied -- from enthusiasm to disapproval to just plain incomprehension!

One thing is for sure: This piece does not display an experimental "new" way of contemporary dance. But I asked myself leaving the theatre: Is this always necessary? Because the fact is, I enjoyed myself seeing this solid and, in a way, "classic" work.

And there's sure to be more to come from Ms. Lee: Next season, she becomes the new chief choreographer of Komische Oper Berlin. I for one am waiting impatiently for her next works, being conscious of her various capacities, of which last week's program projected just a few facets.

For more information about the festival, please click here. For more on Blanca Li, click here.

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