It’s a cold, wet Tuesday morning and Holly Blakey is chatting away on the phone. “Sorry, I’m currently running to a meeting in the rain!” she says, mid-breath.
Yorkshire-born, Lake District-raised Blakey is a busy woman. When she’s not choreographing music videos for pop juggernauts like Florence + the Machine (she picked up the “best choreography” gong at the UK Music Video Awards in 2016 for Delilah), turning Coldplay into CGI chimps or spending time with her year-old baby, she’s working on the second coming of her project commissioned by Southbank Centre, Cowpuncher My Ass. The two-night performance art spectacle is written, choreographed and directed by the 32-year-old as part of a collaboration with composer and producer, Mica Levi, who provides the soundtrack.
Blakey’s first project with Southbank Centre was in 2017 – the award-winning live show, Some Greater Class. The following year she was called back to create a piece to commemorate the reopening of the art venue’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. Cowpuncher was born – a gender-fluid stage tale of the Wild West and now, two years later, Blakey is rebirthing the Western-themed project in a sequel following narratives revolving heroes and heroines, obsession and infidelity, suicide and, as the title suggests, cowboys.
“When you’re going on a journey about cowboys and Westerns you’re forced to look at masculinity, then you have to look at the woman’s role, what that says about gender, what that says about racial divide and land ownership,” Blakey says.
For her, a narrative doesn’t need to be overt, though. Praised as an experimental choreographer – The Guardian graced her a “dance punk” in 2017 – her liberating style merges sexuality with punchy power moves. It seems, too, her choreography methods favour a more holistic approach.
“I’m using ‘narrative’ in a loose sense – it’s a much older choreographic practice. Now, it’s become a much more abstract form. I’m more interested in narratives being played out through characters [rather] than stories, and how characters are developed in the work,” Blakey says.
The characters created in Cowpuncher are part of an all-inclusive universe with the stage as their platform. Blakey is well aware of the barriers height, gender, skin colour and class can have on hopeful dancers in an industry where image is so often scrutinised. Her aim is to change these notions by heading projects like this.
“I feel like dance has this history of uniformity – people being the same. Whether that’s in their physical body or how much their legs can turn out. Of course not all dance is like that anymore, but it is so important to me as someone who didn’t always fit in so well to try to change that,” says Blakey.
Similarly, the choreographer wants the audience of her show to be as diverse as possible, too, extending beyond well-attuned dance fanatics and critics. According to her, the space during 2018’s show invited groups from all walks of life.
“I want it to be for everyone and I really mean that. If you enjoy dance or you don’t, if you like music or pop videos, if you like to be in a place where the vibe is communal and inclusive, this is for you. Last year, I saw people I hadn’t ever seen at dance shows before.”
Cowpuncher My Ass’s core ethics could be just what dance is all about – freedom, escape, fantasy and the bringing together of people for one stellar performance. And with Andreas Kronthaler having designed the costumes, this could be one hell of a visual feast. Yee-haw.