In some of Lico’s videos that I initially came across, despite the absence of master editing, far from being the epitome of polished, high-budget video production, there was an undeniable raw, for the lack of a better word, authenticity, that shone through. Amidst this imperfect canvas, Lico’s body was moving in such a captivating manner that I’ve not seen anyone else do before, such a delicate contrast, exquisite yet powerful, nonchalant yet brimming with grace, effortlessly sublime, and technically brilliant — from the tips of her fingers to the ends of her toes, every gesture, every undulation, every collapse, it was as if her dance was not about dance at all, instead it’s a statement, a form of eloquence communicated through the language of her movements, and boy they compel your attention.
The intriguing aspects of my experience was further enhanced by the juxtaposition of cultural elements, the whole thing was so, I know, ‘Oriental’ is a word that one should probably not use in today’s world, but in the eyes of someone like me who was born in the East and raised in the West, there was a faint echo of what some might label as ‘Oriental’ aesthetics — there’s quite a bit of that Crouching Tiger-ness to the whole thing, on one hand, it evokes images of the East that’s steeped in mystique and tradition, while on the other, it seamlessly coexists with the unmistaken modernity of our times. It’s as if the statement that Lico is conveying does not adhere to any specific tradition or era. Instead, it stands as a testament to the timeless nature of artistic expression, serving as a powerful reminder that the beauty of art lies in its ability to transcend labels and boundaries, effortlessly bridging any divides. This connection feels innate, striking a deep chord.
My first conversation with the dancer took place back in October 2022 via an online call, during which I discovered that Lico originally came from a Chinese ethnic folk dance background. It was only after her university graduation that she began exploring the field of contemporary dance. We conducted our first interview session two months later, while she was in Beijing preparing for a role in a massive dance production.
The entire interview is structured into three chapters. In the opening segment below, we dived into Lico’s past, how she transformed into a fuller dancer moving from childhood to adulthood. The second chapter largely revolves around the art of dance, while the third and final chapter delves into the physical and mental dimensions of being a dancer, accompanied by an epilogue in addition where it captures our conversation during Lico’s visit to Paris in March 2023, marking her first overseas trip since the pandemic lockdown.
Axel Wang：Lico 你们那现在疫情怎么样了？
Lico, how is the current situation with the pandemic over there?
Kehua Li (Lico)：不咋地啊。
Not so great to be honest.
Like out of nowhere people just starting to get infected.
Yeah, probably all of them by now. How are things at your end?
I would say it’s pretty much back to normal now, of course people still put on a mask but there aren’t that many restrictions.
Must have gone through a certain phase right?
There was a brief period of lockdown back in the summer of 2020.
China has only just started to open up so it probably will take a while. In this house in Beijing that I’m staying right now, I could hear some old folks coughing next door, and speaking on the phone about their symptoms or whatnot. Because I’m infected as well, though almost recovered, there’s still quite a bit of coughing. I know it’s not nice to eavesdrop, but occasionally overhearing the neighbours’ conversations makes me feel like I’m not alone, like someone’s talking to me you know.
You are in quarantine right now?
Yes, and I haven’t been out and about for like two weeks already. Nearly the entire team has caught the virus, rehearsals have to be suspended. Hopefully we can resume work next week.
Yesterday, When I Was Young 昨日当我年轻时
First of all Lico, thank you so much for taking the time to do this despite being ill, it’s genuinely appreciated. While researching, I read that you started dancing at around the age of 3 or 4, it’s pretty incredible because I imagine many kids at that age are probably still busy counting stars or something. What is your earliest memory of dancing?
Kehua (Lico) Li：我大概在三岁半到四岁之间，去了老家的一个舞蹈中心，拜访了老师，告诉她我想学跳舞。我记得老师当时说我太小了，问我会什么。我回答说我会扳腿，然后我把腿一下就扳到了头顶上，老师可能也有点吓到了。
I remember when I was around half 3, I visited a dance teacher in a community centre in my hometown and told her that I wanted to learn dancing. She wasn’t really sure what I could do since I was so young, then I pulled my leg up above my head, quite effortlessly, she was a bit startled!
Why did you want to learn dancing, especially at that age?
I mean, I loved all kinds of sports since young, table tennis, swimming, trampoline, cycling, rollerblading, shuttlecock, skipping, you name it, I excelled, I was a natural when it came to sports. My dad was considering sending me to gymnastics but then just thought it’s going to be extremely tough for a kid at that age. Initially dance was just another hobby like the rest, and my family was okay with it, little did I know right, I’m still dancing to this day surprisingly.
“Sometimes, when you lose, you gain something far greater.”
You majored in ethnic folk dance back in university. Speaking of Chinese folk dance, it’s probably just stereotype but personally, I would think of stuff like water sleeves before anything. Folk dance typically consists of choreographies of movements and expressions that differ so vastly comparing with contemporary dance for an outsider like me. After you graduated, why is it that you joined BeijingDance / LDTX1, a contemporary dance group instead of say, something more traditional?
That’s a great question actually, I might have to go back and tell it from the beginning… When I was young, it was more of a dance hobby class right, then afterwards I was admitted to a dance technical school. It was during that period when I first came into contact with Chinese dance, which is a rather broad term and it consists of all sorts of genres. It was a phase where a huge emphasis was placed on developing individual’s physical attributes, and my basic skills and techniques like my flexibility and etc., were actually pretty good, on the other hand when it came to dancing itself, my understanding was relatively shallow and limited, like only knowing how to respond with a smile, be emotionally affected, or remain expressionless and whatnot.
Later, I enrolled at Minzu University of China to study folk dance, that was quite a journey too. Folk dance is a particular art form that demands a rich range of emotions and a strong sense of empathy. You must understand the historical background, culture, and lifestyle of the ethnic groups in order to comprehend why and how to dance. However, at that time, I was completely unaware of all these nuances and complexities. The entrance exam for university that I undertook was a classical dance performance called Xiu Su2 which was a very traditional Chinese form of expression and far beyond what one would expect from someone in their teenage years. I went for it under a state of confusion and naivety, and fortunately — I didn’t really know how — I passed!
Back then, I also applied for both the classical dance program at the Shanghai Theatre Academy and the highly coveted Beijing Dance Academy, but none of it worked out. In the end, the reason I chose folk dance, in hindsight, was perhaps influenced by my birthplace and background. Growing up in a more conservative environment, Minzu University was closer to home, and my family felt more at ease with this choice. I remember when I visited Shanghai, I didn’t quite enjoy the local food (laughs). So yeah, it just seemed like all circumstances led me to the path of folk dance eventually.
There was one particular moment that left a lasting imprint on me, it was the day I saw my name absent from the list of candidates who were successfully accepted by Beijing Dance Academy. I was overwhelmed with disappointment, tears welled up as I stood there. It was then that my father shared a comforting insight, saying, “Sometimes, when you lose, you gain something far greater.” Those words have stayed with me ever since.
It’s often the case that the things we yearn for are not guaranteed, and even if we attain them, they may not be the pinnacle of fulfilment. They can merely be transient fixations or fleeting desires, nothing more. As I embarked on my journey through university and starting to learn folk dance, I was initially naive and clueless but gradually, a fascination for this art form took root within me. I started to develop a genuine interest in the captivating stories and cultural tapestries woven by different ethnic groups. Surrounded by classmates from diverse backgrounds, I began to perceive individuals in a whole new light. Upon graduating from university, I found myself in a conundrum once more, uncertain about the right career path to pursue. At that juncture, my tutor recommended me to go for an audition at TAO Dance Theater3 and LDTX respectively, two renowned modern dance companies. I’m saying this because sometimes in life, there are moments when our aspirations may simply elude us.
I was going to ask why you didn’t join TAO when we spoke for the first time. It wasn’t exactly about the style of the dance, but more like the aesthetic or the vibe I guess, I thought you guys were a great match.
I definitely considered a great deal about joining TAO, when they offered me an internship opportunity I was over the moon really, like you said I just thought I would fit in quite nicely. After I graduated, under the referral of my university tutor Aodeng Gerile, I coincidentally received a leading role in a major dance production in Inner Mongolia, where the choreographer happened to be a founding member of LDTX. At that time, I briefly shared with him my post-graduation situation and how unsure, perplexed I was about my future direction.
What he said stuck with me: “A good dancer must stay true and grow into your own self.” I remember those words like it was yesterday. He believed that if I joined TAO, I could become an amazing TAO dancer, mastering their unique style of movement, they would guide me hand-in-hand, helping me grow, but at the same time it would also leave a long-lasting impact on my body. Alternatively, I could explore different choreographies, experience various movement styles, and create my own works, progressively becoming the dancer and the person I aspire to be. After pondering over his advice for some time, I made up my mind and eventually joined LDTX.
From folk dance to contemporary dance, once again the transition seems huge for an outsider. How well did you handle it?
Oh it was a disaster when I first began. I felt nothing but self-doubt, that my four years at university had completely gone to waste. The ideas of folk dance and contemporary dance are like two different planets in the dance universe, speaking different languages and following completely different rules. When I first joined the troupe, my instructor Ma Bo put it in perspective for me, he said that folk dance is like a passionate, emotional rollercoaster ride, the dancers pour their hearts out in expressing the culture of a community. On the flip side, contemporary dance demands dancers to express their inner thoughts and emotions through every fibre of their being. It wasn’t easy, trying to navigate this shift, it felt like learning to swim in two separate oceans.
There’s a story from my early days at LDTX. I happened to cross paths with someone named Shenyuan Hu4, who’s my senior at university, an amazing dancer and contemporary artist. Back then, despite that we both had the same major in folk dance, he was already teasing with the ideas of contemporary dance choreography, differ from most students, he was sculpting his body and practising ballet in order to uncover his own artistic individuality and what lay beyond the planet of folk dance. By the time he reached his final year, he had even joined LDTX already.
During that period, I felt like I was constantly teetering on the edge of a breakdown. One day, during lunch break, Shenyuan noticed how tightly wound I was. Looking back, I’m incredibly grateful for his words of compassion, he told me to just chill, and reminded me that it had only been a month since I joined. “No one morphs into a brilliant artist overnight,” he said. Shenyuan urged me to be patient and to keep going for as long as I could, only to reevaluate later on and see if I was still struggling to adapt. Those words resonated deeply with me and seriously helped ease my worries.
After hearing Shenyuan’s advice, I began to loosen up a bit. It took about a year to find my own rhythm and embrace the challenges that contemporary dance brought to me. Bit by bit, I started hearing more supportive and encouraging voices while the critical ones faded. And with each passing day, I felt like I was making small but meaningful progress.
I imagine people asking you this a lot, LDTX is like a massive company in the Chinese dance industry, what prompted you to quit the job after six years working there and go on an adventure?
It was comfortable to be honest, almost too comfortable for me, being in the same environment for such a long period of time. That’s just how we all are right? Once you venture outside of your comfort zone, you feel fear, anxious, and self-doubting too. But once you conquer those, inevitably a sense of boredom sets in, fuelling a craving for new challenges. Perhaps I’m still in this phase of life where I can’t just stay still and live so contentedly. I just felt that after six years at LDTX, it was more than enough for me to become familiar with my surroundings and I wanted to get out of this zone, and explore new, unknown territories.
Did you gain any new insights during or after your travel?
You know, it wasn’t until I left my home soil and set foot on foreign lands that I truly grasped how fascinated Westerners are with everything Chinese. It dawned on me that our culture has this unique charm, yet when you’re immersed in it every day, it all seems so ordinary, only when stepping outside unveils a whole new world of contrasts — distinctive ways of thinking, diverse language constructs, and even everyday habits. It’s through these disparities that I realised my own distinctiveness. Things I took for granted suddenly became treasured gems in the eyes of others.
During my travels, I asked people this a lot, “What is it that you think sets my dance apart?” I couldn’t fathom the reasons why, say, one of my dance videos would rack up so many views. After all, there are countless exceptional dancers back home with incredible physical skills, explosive power, and some abilities I can only dream of. I just couldn’t get how people could describe some of my moves as “gorgeous” or “outstanding.” Along the way, I discovered that the answer to my question always lies in uniqueness, but at the time, I couldn’t fully comprehend how this ‘difference’ or ‘uniqueness’ came to be.
Reflecting on my journey abroad, it feels like forever ago. After I returned to China in 2020 and collaborated with many local dancers, I slowly began to grasp where that ‘difference’ resided. It rests upon individuality built upon a foundation of shared experiences — amid an environment that may seem homogenous, where everyone is dancing to a similar tune, your uniqueness surges forth — it emerges from critical and autonomous thinking. Each of us sheds layers and accumulates experience as life progresses, everything we learn merely forms this foundation, while the height we reach ultimately depends on how we experience, adapt, and in turn respond, it’s about shifting our mindset when facing the known and the unknown. All these encounters and experiences would all gradually shape our values, perspectives, and ideological consciousness, resulting in an individual’s distinctiveness.
Many dancers in China, especially the independent ones, possess a strong sense of autonomy, an open and inclusive mindset, resilience and adaptability. On the other hand, dancers in mainstream dance companies may tend to encounter fewer daily changes, even though their living conditions may be more favourable. I’ve been there too, and during that time, I probably wasn’t as edgy and self-aware as I am today. When working with them, I see exceptional performers who swiftly accept, execute, and accomplish tasks. I mean, there are so many of them. Only when you aspire to elevate dance to an art form, it’s going to take more than passive task execution alone, instead you need to be a lot more proactive. Of course, not everyone has to be an artist, it all varies between individuals at the end of the day right?
Let’s end this chapter on a lighter note, after visiting so many countries, where would you like to settle down if you were to pick one?
I don’t have a definitive answer to be honest. I would love to go back to Israel and France once more, the only thing that’s on the top of my list is to travel and to explore, I would love to visit Italy and Japan, they were on my schedule before the pandemic struck and I had to cancel. For me at this stage, it’s probably too early to think about when to stop or where to settle. I wanted to stay in Suzhou back in the day, it’s chilled, it’s pretty, very picturesque and a bit like my hometown as well. I had to move to Shanghai afterwards because of work, just as I was settling down, here came the pandemic. Even when I returned to Beijing not too long ago, it was also never part of the plan. With my every attempt to find stability, fate just seems to whisper, “Not yet, the hour is not ripe. There are still uncharted journeys awaiting, still places to explore.” I mean, I just hope that the pandemic can come to an end already or we just find a harmonious way to coexist, after all, isn’t that how the collective human history has always been?
1. BeijingDance / LDTX (雷动天下现代舞团) is a prominent dance company based in Beijing founded in 2005 by Willy Tsao and Hanzhong Li. Dynamic and versatile, the company combines elements of traditional Chinese culture with innovative choreography and diverse artistic collaborations. The performances are often powerful and thought-provoking, exploring social, cultural, and human experiences.
2. Xiu Su 《休诉》is a traditional Chinese drama that portrays the story of a woman in ancient society, who was divorced by her husband, which is considered a significant disgrace for women in that era, as it meant losing one’s social status, family support, and facing social pressure and discrimination. The story highlights the vulnerable position of women and their dependence on marriage in traditional Chinese society.
3. TAO Dance Theater (陶身体剧场) is founded by choreographer Tao Ye (陶冶) in 2008, a cutting-edge contemporary dance company based in China. Known for its minimalist, experimental approach and visually stunning performances.
4. Shenyuan Hu (胡沈员) is a dancer and contemporary artist from China. Started his dance journey specialising in folk dance and later ventured into the world of contemporary dance.
The original interview was conducted in Mandarin Chinese by Axel Wang on 17 December 2022, the epilogue was conducted on 8 March 2023 mostly in Mandarin Chinese and partially in English. The above conversation has been condensed, edited and translated accordingly. The title of the chapter is in reference to the song by Roy Clark.
Introduction, Editor & Design: Axel Wang
Photography: All images are courtesy of Kehua Li (Lico)
Special Thanks: Harry Wang