Cowpuncher 2019 on Royal Festival Hall roof. Photo Daniele Fummo

Holly Blakey Believes Everything Is Choreography

Her new show, "Cowpuncher My Ass" debuts at London's Southbank Centre on February 7th.

by Holly Connolly
Feb 2 2020, 10:37am

Cowpuncher 2019 on Royal Festival Hall roof. Photo Daniele Fummo

A couple of years ago, the London-based choreographer Holly Blakey put on an event, “Everything is: Choreography,” the name of which is still the best description of her work that I can find. Having studied ballet as a child before crossing over to contemporary dance, by the age of 22 Blakey was already choreographing music videos. This led to film and then live work; “Actually a very back to front way of coming into choreography, in many senses,” as she puts it. Perhaps in part because of this, she is known for traversing boundaries—she makes fashion films, music videos and live performances. Still, there is an anarchic energy to all her work that’s distinctly hers. “When you're making your best work you have to push it to the very edge,” she says, on the value of failure. “My favorite things about music and art and life teeter on this line of being almost wrong.”

February 7th will see Blakey revisit her2018 performance Cowpuncher at London’s Southbank Centre. Showing over two nights, Cowpuncher My Ass is a story of “heroes and heroines, obsession, infidelity, suicide and cowboys,” which aims to probe, and destabilize, the conventions of Western cinema. Characteristic of any Blakey project, there are no weak links. The sound will be by composer and producer Mica Levi, who's previously scored Under the Skin, Jackie, and last year’s Monos. Dancers will wear archive and new pieces by Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood—“When I started out looking at cowboys I remembered this really old Vivienne Westwood image, of these two cowboys nude from the waist down, so I knew I had to ask her to do the costumes,” says Blakey. Ahead of the performance, GARAGE spoke with Blakey about collaboration, systems in culture, and creating dance that doesn’t feel like dance.

I wanted to start by talking about how Cowpuncher My Ass came into being, especially in relation to 2018’s Cowpuncher.
Me and Mica were asked to do the first performance to reopen The Queen Elizabeth Hall after it had been closed for refurbishment. In hindsight it was completely crazy. We had only two weeks rehearsal time to put the whole thing together and we thought, "What can we do that's really bright and celebratory and fun? Let's do a cowboy dance!" In part doing a Western made sense to us because of our practice and our heritage in work; in many ways I come from a pop video background, and Mica comes from film.

So we embarked on this theme, and as soon as you spend two minutes thinking about it, it's a very problematic subject in many ways. There’s this really tough imagery of masculinity, of men—I remember reading a statistic that horses appear more than women in Spaghetti Westerns. There are huge racial divides, border problems, and before I had a second to really consider those things I had a show to do. So we scratched the surface, but this time we wanted to look further into these themes. Can we do a sequel? We wanted to enter this world again, but start a new conversation.

And there’s also been this emergence of Western aesthetics especially as a wider trend in culture.
I know! We decided on this cowboy thing and then suddenly everyone went cowboy mad. I even felt that maybe we shouldn't do cowboys this time for that very reason, but that doesn't make any sense to following the truth of the work. I don't know where it all came from, but I do think we all move culturally and socially in these little systems that we're not always aware of. As a choreographer I receive a lot of treatments about works to choreograph films, and often they have really, really similar themes. I think, “Why the hell? How has this happened?” But I think there must be something going on that we don't always recognize, little hints here and there.

Cowpuncher My Ass in rehearsals. Photo Nichole Ngai

I think of collaboration as being very central to your work, and especially with this show.
I think collaboration is vital. People mention this idea of collaboration to me a lot though, and in a way I wouldn’t say that I do it more than any other choreographer. I do work with people in the same way that I work with dancers. They have agency and they have a voice, and I would never say, "Do this exactly like this!" I'm much more interested in process. So when I have a show it will be by Holly Blakey, of course; with Cowpuncher, I wrote, directed and choreographed it, I chose the final music, and the final costumes. But it is our work, we share the work and we share the process, and we go through and think together. Perhaps because of that, it has a greater sense of all of us together, which I'm really about.

How does that relationship work in practice? What was the process, say, for Mica creating the score?
She writes the music exactly as she writes films. I choreograph the work, then she comes to see it, we film it, and then she takes the film home and writes the music over the top of it. Then she’ll bring what she’s written back into the studio and we’ll look at it again, and sometimes she might write three or four different versions over the same film. For this piece especially, we wanted that process, we wanted it to be written like she writes films, because of course we’re thinking about Westerns. So we’re trying to approach it as much as possible as if it’s not a dance piece.

Cowpuncher My Ass in rehearsals. Photo Daniele Fummo

Is that important to you, to try and make work that’s outside of what would conventionally be considered “a dance piece”?
A hundred percent. At the moment there's a huge saturation of dance and a lot of it can feel same-y. If I want to use dance, which of course I do, I want to find a new way to use it, or a new language within it. When I'm creating a piece with the dancers we work on all the things that make it choreography, and then it's like, "Now how do we stop this being a dance?" And this is always the final part of my process, that this isn't a dance anymore. I want it to feel like a real action: we are people in this space doing this stuff. It will always feel like a dance, it's choreography, but our approach is to try and make it feel somehow more real.

Holly Blakey
Vivienne Westwood