Originally created 05/05/04

Blanca Li's hip-hop celebration is long on frivolity



NEW YORK -- Movie-goers in search of reality should avoid "The Dance Challenge," Blanca Li's hip-hop extravaganza, where MTV meets "West Side Story" with some "Ab Fab" thrown in for good measure.

The film, which debuted Monday at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival, is the brainchild of Spanish-born choreographer Li, known in Paris for her raucous, celebrity-packed cabarets.

Co-writer, director and choreographer Li stars as Elena, a wealthy, uptight single mom struggling to connect with her 18-year-old son, David (Benji Chaouat), whose surliness yields only to break dancing and his new girlfriend, Samia (Sofia Boutella). His hip hop crew, the Urban Cyber Breakers, is preparing for a dance-off against rival group LD.

Li as an uptight anything is a stretch, and that's just the beginning of this spoofy romp, which never lets details like plot or character get in the way of its true star, dance. Steeped in hip hop, "The Dance Challenge" also pays homage to past greats like the Nicholas Brothers, who tapped their way from Harlem to Hollywood and beyond and influenced generations of dancers.

The attention and time given to dance sequences - which are just as likely to occur on the sidewalk as they are in a club - save "The Dance Challenge" from becoming pure farce. If Li takes anything seriously, it's dance, which unfurls throughout the film in long, sumptuous camera shots. She recruited top dancers - 150 in all - instead of actors, and the youngsters' exuberance and panache, their dedication to mastering this hybrid form, give the film great heart.

Determined to win back David's affections, Elena puts her Paris boutique in the hands of her bumbling assistant, Hippolyte (Christopher Salengro), and re-embraces her dance roots with the help of LD DJ Monzon (Marco Prince). Enamored of Elena, Monzon also recognizes that her knowledge of dance history could give his group the upper hand over UCB.

Allowing one of your son's rivals to seduce you might not be the surest path back into his life, but who can concentrate on such things when Elena sheds her Carrie Bradshaw look for hip-hop gear and invites LD in for an impromptu dance party in her gigantic apartment?

Never one to lean against the wall when there's dancing to be done, Li (that pesky Elena character disappears at some point) hops into the fray. With the help of fashionista friend Birgit, played with arch perfection by Amanda Lear, LD helps itself to the contents of Elena's boutique; son David, meanwhile, steals what he wants, outwitting poor Hippolyte and the alarm system.

Finally, it's the night of the challenge. LD and UCB, led by mother and son, face off, upping each other with freezes, spins and a variety of other house and b-boy moves.

Who wins? Frivolity, of course.

"The Dance Challenge" is in French with English subtitles. Running time: 94 minutes. Unrated. Two stars out of four.