Choreography is key to any performance. For those on stage, it's there to make their dancing feel organic and to empower their abilities, but for those in the audience, it's so that they can connect with the story, the emotion, the strength, the harmony, the chaos… It is all in the choreography and in how the dancers use those indications to their highest potential. Holly Blakey – a British choreographer and director – may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but her work surely has intention and honesty behind it. “My work is very divisive. People hate my work and people love my work. People walk out of my shows,” she says.
Having choreographed music videos for artists like Rosalía, Florence + The Machine or Coldplay, as well as fashion films for Gucci or Dior, it is easy to understand why exploring high art and mass culture is one of her aims. As elitist as art can be, she thrives in social dance and intends to bring her work to people who may not be so familiarised with contemporary dance or may not have the resources to do so.

Today we talk to Holly Blakey about her upcoming performance Cowpuncher My Ass, commissioned by The SouthBank Centre on February 15 which, for the first time, is in collaboration with the London Contemporary Orchestra. And although the work for this piece has been going on for almost 5 years, it continues to evolve and suggest. There may be more questions than answers, but it surely explores the sexual politics (and ridiculousness) of genre and gender stereotypes and strict masculinity. Cowpuncher My Ass is about togetherness and how us, people, behave and relate with each other and the world.
To start off, how would you describe your work? What would you say is your trademark as a choreographer?
I would describe it as rigorous, messy, curious, inelegant and truthful (hopefully). And I don’t know what my trademark is… I don’t really go into making something thinking that way, I just really try and complete the idea.
In another interview, you said that something vital in your work is “That it never feels like you’re not included in the conversation.” How do you achieve this?
I make choreography on dancers, and the dancers will always say after the language and dancing are created that the hardest part is to be the person within it. It’s about people. Once the steps are with clarity, the most important thing is that it becomes articulated to a real person, behaving in a real way. I think by this method and approach you see people, not dancers in the space. And I think – especially when it’s live and flesh, and immediate and in front of you – your empathetic systems click in, your abilities to feel the softness and vulnerability of someone else in front of you click in. Hopefully, this sense of reality that we try to perform allows deep connections.
What was the decisive moment for you in which you went from being a dancer to being a choreographer?
I started choreographing very young, I didn’t have a long dancing career. I did simple freelance practice. Initially, I started choreographing music videos, and that was probably when I was 22. I always had a live practice that coexisted, but the film and the music video work went really far and fast. Then, as my life practice started to develop, both sides of my working practice began to have a bit of a conversation.
Let’s talk about your upcoming performance of Cowpuncher My Ass at the Southbank Centre. What connection do you find between the Wild West genre and gender stereotypes, identity and sexual politics?
Cowpuncher means cowboy. I love that the cowboy itself is this simple strong icon of masculinity and male strength, but also a gay icon. I love the queer politics that exist inside that figure. I’m intrigued by this character, I’m intrigued by the way one simple thing can be represented in so many different ways. If you look at the statistics of this movie genre, horses appear more than women. There are so many things that arrive straight away with just these simple things that you can obtain and practice. There are so many politics around land, around the way you have to be and look and smell. I like the way it exists over a sparse wide landscape. It’s kind of poetic and ridiculous. It’s almost like you can choose this one theme and within it, there are a million problems, you can take this idea anywhere. And I actually think that’s why, in a sense, Cowpuncher has become a series of ideas rather than just one show.
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Photo: Max Barnett
And why did you decide to give the piece this name?
Cowpuncher My Ass because an ass is also a donkey. But also because my work is very divisive. People hate my work and people love my work. People walk out of my shows. So, I wanted to just own that for a moment.
What can we expect from the return of this series? How is it different from the previous runs?
Cowpuncher is this ever-fluid, ever-changing set of ideas. I like it to feel like a sequel, my biggest goal is to make it feel like The Sopranos or any of those incredible classic and successive TV moments. I like that it can continue to bring. It’s been going on now for 5 years, and I’ve changed so much in that time – the world has changed so much in that time. It’s really nice to have a piece of work that is everliving, everchanging and breathing as we age, as we get injured, and as the world around us is different. In a way, it’s the same show but the cast is a little bit different, and the story is a little bit different. Someone died the last time.
We always continue the landscape but we change the little narratives so that it makes sense in how we are and where we feel now. And then, of course, this one has the orchestra. We have a twenty-piece string orchestra that comes on stage and performs moving with the dancers. This is the final failure, in a way. We never realise anything in Cowpuncher, it just continues to ask questions and drive us crazy. The orchestra acts as something to cleanse all of it, to push it off stage. It’s almost like it fails and we find that it’s the most important and most beautiful thing. That is the integral moment.
I am very interested in how you start from scratch and build up the final piece for other dancers. As a trained ballerina, it is easy for me to imagine choreographing a solo piece or a duet, but when it comes to a whole production with many dancers involved, how does the sketch of spacing, shapes and timing come to your mind?
The initial scene would probably start like how you recognise. I go to the studio on my own and play music – I’m a big believer in music and the idea of dancing to it and the hilarity of the way we move our bodies when we hear it. I start with a simple idea and then I grow it, it might honestly be to sixteen counts. I do it over and over again. Then, I teach it to dancers and I change it entirely and realise “you need to do this, what happened when you looked there that made me feel like this…” I use music a lot, I sometimes use one piece of music and then I clear it and add something entirely different. Working with Mica Levi, for example, when we first started this process, we were set to something. We filmed it and then Mica would write the music on top of the film. That is the first part of the process.
Then, I might do a long improvisation around an idea and start almost narrating. I’ll be writing or reading things, writing down ideas, exploring those ideas… I might film some stuff and then say “these eighteen counts have to be sixteen counts, how can you take this idea that you just found and put it all in one moment?” We just let it grow. I work humanistically, I look at it, and then I add and add. At that point, it will be too much and I will change it. Then, it feels clear that it is too sincere. I might want to change the idea and make it just about dancing to the music for one moment. I build it like that. I’m sure it’s just like you would do. You just use your instinct and know what feels good.
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Photo: Max Barnett
Sometimes people ridicule a dance simply because it’s commercial or because it doesn’t have a deep meaning or difficult moves. Since you’ve choreographed for all kinds of artists and audiences… What are your thoughts on how elitist art and dance can be?
I think one of the most beautiful things about dance (there are many, but something I’m interested in) is, like I said before, why our bodies move when you put music on. This is a communal holistic sense that we all share. Why do we move in this way? To say dancing to music shouldn't be authentic or meaningful is so wrong to me. Nothing within dancing should feel lesser or hold less value than the simple idea of just dancing to sounds. It holds everything, it’s such a bigger question. It’s like the question of what is life and how we are here and what even is sound.
First of all, I think of this as a big error, in that simple statement. And then, I just believe there is a lot of value in making things for mass culture and mass audience. I’m interested in making public social work, making work for people who don’t always see dance or don’t have access to a theatre. It’s very difficult because you are always striking this balance between wanting to show and present your work and needing to operate within institutions where sometimes you have no power. In a way, it would be great if it could all just be free and anyone could come. I’m interested in social dance, communal dance and togetherness, not elitism and small groups.
I would also like to talk about Phantom. I find it absolutely mesmerising from the beginning to the end. I’ve read you consider this piece to be autobiographical. I believe it came from your experience with a miscarriage. Could you please tell us more about the story behind Phantom?
Thank you. Those guys are students of a conservatory here in London. That’s the postgraduate company and that was a live piece that toured. I’ve worked with that school quite a few times, I did their graduate performance and later Phantom, which was their postgraduate performance. I was pregnant when they asked me to do it and by the time I got there, I had a miscarriage. I didn’t know what to do, how on Earth could I be making something when I was still feeling such a certain way? I was kind of broken. I have a big book of symbols that I sometimes work with to open ideas. I might just open a page and see what I find, see what is written or what objects come up and what stories might be around that specific object. When I opened the book there was an egg, and I was shocked.
We did a big improvisation, and they all worked on their own around the idea of what it might be like to hold an egg. That was it. We kept making this work, and as I said before, I’m interested in social dance, I’m interested in recapturing, exploring it, seeing where gender sits within it, seeing where class sits within it. It became more and more rigorous, more and more like something that was being called that wasn’t arriving. Very much towards the end of the process, perhaps the final week, I told the students what happened and my experience. It was very nice and sad. We decided to finish this piece and wanted it to feel like we were calling for something and it just doesn’t come, it dies.
Also, wardrobe and costumes play a big role in the final pieces of your work, like in Phantom or Cowpuncher My Ass. In what ways does fashion help you express the idea of the story you want to tell?
I love fashion, I love clothes, I love the theatre behind the fashion world and how much purpose we find in things as simple as the way fabric might fall on your sleeve. I just think there is something so poetic and beautiful about it.
You teamed up with Andreas Kronthaler of Vivienne Westwood for the Cowpuncher My Ass performance. How does this collaboration come about?
I love fashion generally but Vivienne Westwood and the cowboy are so in sync. So, knowing I was going to make this cowboy series they just seemed like the perfect people to work with.
We would love to hear where you find inspiration for new creations. Is there any artist you look up to?
There are many artists I look up to, many. But when I’m looking for inspiration I might look more into the way movies are made, it kind of brings through the Western theme. I might find a book, I might talk to my neighbour… I’m interested in people, I’m interested in the way a child pets a dog or how a homeless person opens a sandwich. I like to look around me and find pedestrian stories and write them down. Maybe conversations we hear, the way someone trips over when they are trying to impress someone. All these things make me feel sweet about the world and sad about the world. I look more in that direction.
Lastly, do you have any other projects in mind for this year?
Yes, I’m in the process of making a new work at the moment. I’ve been working on it for the last year or so, and as soon as we finish Cowpuncher My Ass we will be getting back into rehearsal for that new piece.
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Photo: Daniele Fummo
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Phantom - Tasha Back
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Phantom - Tasha Back
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Phantom - Tasha Back
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Tryptic - Daniel Landin
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Tryptic - Daniel Landin