How Holly Blakey became the choreographer for the stars

“People often get the idea that I’m trying to be grotesque or shocking, but it can’t be any more than what I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to be honest,” says Holly Blakey. trembling in his room, in a low voice but confidently.

Blakey’s dance isn’t always the kind you’d call pretty, whether in music videos, fashion campaigns, or live work. It can be distorted and fuzzy, it can be repetitive and relentless, it can be overtly sexualized. “I want to play with what is acceptable in the contemporary dance scene,” she says. But it is not intended to be alienating; It is intended to be recognizable. “I’m trying to be serious. I’m trying to respect people and say, ‘We’re all like that.'”

Even so, even the title of his latest performance, Cowpuncher My Ass, is contradictory. Cowpuncher is an old term for a cowboy and this piece is a sequel to 2018’s Cowpuncher. When commissioned to do his first work with composer Mica Levi, they came up with the idea for the western not because Blakey was particularly a fan of the movies, but because he was fascinated by the cowboy archetype – “hypermasculine yet very campy”. – and this genre has found much to explore in terms of sexual politics, gender and power. It churnes out stereotypes and presents a colorful group of “messy” characters (all dressed by Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood) whose bodies squirm, tremble and line dance. Or, as the Observer review describes it, “a simmering stew of 100 different dance languages” that “turns into a hideous frenzy.”

Blakey likes to say that she doesn’t refer to pop culture in her work, but that her work is pop culture and is more interested in the language of music, film and TV than dance. “If I could strive for anything in my live work, it’s to make it feel like The Sopranos,” she says. You’ve probably seen Blakey’s choreography in music videos: for example, Coldplay’s video where he transforms into dancing chimpanzees, or Florence + the Machine’s award-winning Delilah, as well as Jorja Smith, Lianne La Havas and, most recently, Spanish pop star Rosalía. (“An incredible person and performer: tough, serious, fearless,” says Blakey.) He will work with singers in the studio, “trying to capitalize on their interesting side rather than teaching them how to dance. Sometimes we don’t know what’s interesting to us, do we? Others need to notice.”

Blakey thinks this is a golden age for music video choreography. “The old idea of ​​having a narrative that you choreographed certain dances on top of that has changed,” he says. “Now the dance is the idea, the dance is the story.” He also works with fashion brands (Dior, Burberry, Gucci) and in advertising: he has just returned from shooting a perfume commercial in South Africa with director Romain Gavras and is teaching an actor to run like a big cat up the mountain. “My job was to make him feel like a cat,” says Blakey.

Her immersion in the worlds of fashion and music meant that she sat outside the dance establishment and didn’t follow the obvious path. Born in Harrogate, Blakey started dancing as a child. At first she just wanted to be a ballerina but discovered contemporary dance after battling anorexia as a teenager and spending time in the hospital. (“I’m telling you I’ve been diagnosed with anorexia, but I feel like that’s not the problem. But when, I guess?”)

She didn’t get into the top dance schools she auditioned for and graduated at Roehampton University in south London, where she was directed to teach. “It’s great, but that’s not what I wanted. To be honest, I was devastated,” he says. But it was his making. “It turned me on a lot. I had a lot to prove.” He spent all his free time studying outside of university and doing his own business. “For a long time I felt really nervous about this,” he says, “and now I’m really grateful because it allowed me to have my own sense of wonder, less institutionally driven and made me feel quite angry about it.” devoted.”

Other things that fueled Blakey’s work were his crazy teenage days, going to illegal gatherings in the countryside with his sister, and dancing nonstop all night. “Community activity, togetherness, enthusiasm, constant cycle of action” loved it. Life has changed since then (he is 35, has two young children with his wife, musician Gwilym Gold), but the instinct is still there. “My boyfriend used to say to me, ‘How can you rehearse all day and then go out and dance all night? What is this?’ But dancers are curious animals; nothing can stop this desire to act.”

Blakey wants to capture some of this sense of community of the dance floor in her stage work. It speaks of a spiritual feeling, of a “worldly, tribal quality”, of “clan-like behavior for which we suffer and exist”. He wants the audience to be a part of that clan too. The methods of doing this can be unexpected. For example, in Cowpuncher My Ass, the house lights stay on during the first half of the show. The dancers were not happy with this decision: “’What are you talking about, full lights?!’ Suddenly the door is wide open, they have no mood to absorb,” Blakey laughs. “But [in the audience] I can feel empty, I am aware of who is sitting next to me, what they are thinking and when they are blowing their nose. The idea was to let the viewer really be in it, not just stare.”

Not everyone is into it. Blakey gets love/hate reactions to his work and realizes that most of the time it’s normal dance audiences who don’t like it. He’s used to being divisive, though he was surprised by the backlash for The Phantom, a film he made for Fact magazine with dancers from the London Contemporary Dance School. The job came just a week after she had a miscarriage, and the piece has become a sort of folk fertility ritual in fluorescent Lycra, adorned with deep anger. “It evokes something that will never come,” he says. “And it caused a smell [online], this movie. So much drama, so many people freaking out: ‘This is terrible! What a lousy idea!” But Blakey is proud of the movie and glad he did it. “Never read the comments,” she laments. “But I know, and I torture myself with that all the time.”

Blakey has been working on the Cowpuncher series for five years, and “as a job for me it’s almost dead,” he says. New to this latest show is a collaboration with the London Contemporary Orchestra, whose strings will be performing in a new episode. Blakey describes the scene that begins with the harsh scratching tone of Levi’s soundtrack and then evolves into a beautiful, melodic song. “In a way, the strings come off and they push everything aside, they kind of kill him, and I just want to embrace his failure… And I want to have a sweetness about it, celebrate it and let his heart break. And let him die.” Is it because things are failing and life is messy and there isn’t a decent solution? “Yeah, and if it’s true why don’t we offer it,” Blakey says. “Don’t we all, deep down, usually feel that way and share something in it?”

Blakey’s exotic, eccentric characters don’t look like the “real world” at all, but Blakey somehow wants to reflect that; actually more than that – being that. When I asked him what Cowpuncher was about, he said, “People, the way we exist, the way we share things with each other and the way we receive things from each other. And the violence and deep loneliness within us, our sense of beauty and togetherness, and our terrible ways of behaving. That’s what the work is about.”

Cowpuncher My Ass is at the Royal Festival Hall in London on February 15.

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