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From Florence & The Machine’s “Delilah”
From Florence & The Machine’s “Delilah”

How to disrupt the rules of dance

Choreographer and director Holly Blakey tells us about working with Florence & the Machine and Gucci on her own terms

Catch London choreographer Holly Blakey in the studio, and you’ll see her circle her dancers like a bird of prey. Eyes transfixed, body unconsciously mirroring their movements, she’s not looking for mistakes, but ways to improve things, a perfectionism that has brought her to the top of her game both as a commercial choreographer and as a pioneering artist.

Starting when she was three-years-old, in a small ballet school in a garage in Lancaster, Balkey went on to train professionally before entering London’s intimate live art circle as a contemporary dancer. Quickly frustrated with the scene’s stagnancy, she got a gig choreographing Jessie Ware’s video for “Night Light” and realised that working behind the camera was a better fit. She’s since made videos with respected, cult musicians like Mica Levi and Gwilym Gold, choreographed the likes of Florence & the Machine, Klyne, MØ and Mabel, and worked on films for Dior and Gucci. The fact that all this commercial work somehow made her less esteemed in the world of dance didn’t go unnoticed, however: “I felt that presented bigger questions about how the art world is extremely elitist, how work made for mass culture holds less value,” she explains. “My peers were sitting around making work for each other, when actually, as artists, isn't our role to be reaching out to people, to be coming together?”

Enter Some Greater Class, a Bacchanalian dance performance Blakey created two years ago. Featuring eight of her most loyal and trusted dancers, she’s currently reworking the show for a fresh run at The Southbank Centre. “It’s a response to my involvement with popular culture, as a maker, and to my context as an artist in the dance community,” she says. “But it’s also a story about the bigger picture of social connectivity and how we can use dance, at its very primal source, to somehow make things more manageable for ourselves.” Below, Blakey explains how she’s remoulding the world of dance into something more egalitarian.


“I’m trained in acro and ballet, but the kind of dance I do isn't about technique; I go on feeling. That can just mean closing my eyes and moving my body, without music. It’s about being completely committed to what you're doing and not letting inherent movement in, liberating yourself from your mind, being completely honest and shutting down the barriers that you put up for yourself. I always think, with ballet, how can you make work that’s authentic when you've got one toolbox to work with? I don’t use a formula, I just shut myself away, find the central point of what I'm thinking about and then there might be one movement that I’ll do over and over until I find that the commitment lies somewhere else, and then suddenly I’ll do things slightly differently. My work changes all of the time.”


“I’m a really physical person, so I’ll always be working in the studio on my own before I meet with the dancers. There’s something meditative about the routine of setting your alarm for 6am every day and being militant with yourself. In hindsight, not getting into dance school right away, because I had been ill, is one of the best things that has ever happened to me: it made me work harder to try and prove everybody wrong. Now I train alone a lot. Not always dance, but also yoga – because work has a low centre of gravity and is not upright and pretty, yoga supports my practice a lot better than ballet. When you've been a dancer your whole life I think looking after your body is just paramount, but I’m still a bit of a ying and yang person; I’ll eat really well and drink loads of water for a week and then, of course, ruin it all at the weekend.”

“I was bored of people telling me what the dance should look like” – Holly Blakey


“I find that working for film, I always have a client, I always have someone I have to answer to. I started directing my own films because I was bored of people telling me what the dance should look like, tired of people saying they want you for what you do but then they want a watered down version… or that they want something you've done before rather than something original, even though the thing you did before was only good because it was original. I’ve had a really fruitful career working as a choreographer for music videos, fashion films and online content – it was much more liberating than moving in small London live art dance circles, cultures of people who all operate in a similar way – but lately, for the freedom, I’ve been pulled back to making things that are live.”


“In the dancer’s I work with I always look for individuality, a genuine free thinker, intelligence, someone who doesn't just want to be a vessel, but wants to contribute to the work. Musically, my main, long-term collaborators are Gwilym Gold and Darkstar. We’ve been working together for two years, on Some Greater Class and recently another show called Abide. We are very close; we spend a lot of time together listening to music together and dancing together and I guess you can see that in Some Greater Class – it has a raucous energy, a 4am fucked up feeling – I do that a lot with Gwilym and Darkstar so it supports the work, but also I rate them extremely highly as artists.”


“Some Greater Class is choreographed to a tee. Nothing is left up to chance unless someone does something wrong. But for “Abide” we did things differently; we created a set of rules triggered by things that happened in the music. Each of the dancers had a theme – like tragedy or shame – and they had different points in the music that gave them their triggers, so it was about seeing what happened randomly; they didn't know when the trigger would come or when to repeat it. It was a kind of ‘roll the dice’ way of making work, and behind that, there were lots of over the top principles of emotion to embody through the movements. It’s a really longstanding practice to make work just about aesthetic; Merce Cunningham would roll a dice and the form in the space would change in accordance with the outcome, the dance borne on those moments. Because I usually work extremely emotionally, not from that sort of abstract, formulaic view, it was interesting to see what happened.”


“Some Greater Class is a kind of pastiche of what a music video should look like, a lot of shaking bums. I hope the risk in it is that it’s really unashamed, very pure to its point. It’s not a ballet, some virtuoso spectacle of what a dancer can do with the body, although it can be that. It’s more about this punk idea that the system doesn't work for so many dancers. There’s a revolt hammering under the surface at the moment in dance, that the institutions have been the same for so long and it’s a fucking middle-class white wash. Putting on a Breakin Convention once a year doesn't mean anyone else does it the rest of the year. And Ballet is this strict thing, there are rules and people are so afraid to move away from the format. If we’re talking about progression in dance, you might see a book on Martha Graham, talk about ballet or Beyonce, but what about everything in between? The industry isn't allowing these things to flourish but there is a lot in between and are a lot of choreographers who are trying to do it. It’s not just me.”

“I’m still a bit of a ying and yang person; I’ll eat really well and drink loads of water for a week and then of course ruin it all at the weekend” – Holly Blakey


“When it comes to business, I think it’s about being confident enough to know what you're doing is worthwhile and not being shy to reach out and say, ‘I think you should know about this thing I'm doing’, to ask people around you to shine a light if they have that sort of torch. I have no barrier between personal life, work life and studio life and that can make you mad vulnerable or make it difficult to know how to navigate yourself in different situations because if someone is pissing you off they're pissing off every part of you. I think for me, artists are a funny mix of self-assuredness or confidence versus shatteringly low self-esteem, but when it comes to dance I don't really have any doubt in what I'm doing, and I think that’s why it works. I think people can sense doubt. But it also helps that I have a massive team of people who work with me. And that I love what I do – dancing gives me something nothing else in the world can, it’s therapy.”

Some Greater Class is on at The Southbank Centre on the 29th July and 30th of July