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Holly Blakey’s Cowpuncher My Ass
Photography Nicole Ngaise

Choreographer Holly Blakey on courting criticism and embracing pop culture

Blakey presents Cowpuncher My Ass, the sequel to last year’s divisive show, set in the Wild West

How do cowboys dance? It’s a seemingly innocuous question which prompts 130 million Google results and nearly as many TikTok takes on the two-step and cowboy boogie. And, while Lil Nas X was honing the steel toe-tapping country-trap sound which springboarded “Old Town Road” from unlikely meme to longest-reigning number one in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, choreographer Holly Blakey was pondering the same question.

Originally commissioned in 2018 by the Southbank Centre to make a “bright and fun” performance to reopen the refurbished Queen Elizabeth Hall, Blakey landed on the theme of cowboys and the Wild West. Beneath the glinting promise of newly-polished spurs and rhinestone-studded chaps, Blakey made a bleak realisation: the ye-ha tribalism of spaghetti Westerns guarded gender hierarchies while reinforcing homophobia, racism, and an ugly obsession with “the American way of life”.

Blakey’s rebuttal was Cowpuncher, a Wild West world where a cast of eight outsiders steadily dismantled the tropes of Cowboy and Western films and contemporary dance with hypnotic, chaotic force. A line-dance between the rigorously codified beauty of contemporary dance performance and the pulsating abandon of rave, the sold-out show received mixed reviews.

Two years and a baby later, Blakey is back with a pistol-toting sequel. Cowpuncher My Ass is a tale of heroes, heroines, obsession, and suicide which premieres at the Queen Elizabeth Hall this week. Blakey’s original cast of cowboys, plus a few new faces, will be once again costumed by Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood while Oscar and BAFTA-nominated composer Mica Levi, famed for her experimental soundscapes, provides a characteristically unconventional score.

“My work is popular culture, I’m not going to apologise for that” – Holly Blakey

Cowpuncher My Ass follows your sold out 2018 show Cowpuncher. What was it that drew you back into the Wild West world?

Holly Blakey: I wanted to create something really bright and fun to reopen the Queen Elizabeth Hall after its refurbishment, which was where the cowboy came into play. As an artist is perhaps most known for my work in film, playing with this Western idea seemed fitting. You only need to spend a moment thinking about Westerns and suddenly you land at very problematic themes; toxic depictions of masculinity, the roles of women, borders, racial divides, who owns what, my land, your land, shoot out! Suddenly, this bright and playful idea seemed so much deeper than I had intended, and somehow grossly relevant. After chipping the surface with Cowpuncher, I knew I had to revisit these stories and continue the characters' journey in part two. I felt I owed it to them. I’m also interested in how you could work with a sequel in dance, as in films.

How does this second story pick up from where we left off last time? 

Holly Blakey: It’s important to me this idea of the sequel is entered through a kind of hypothetical lens. I’m not always telling direct immediate stories as much as picking apart what narrative can mean choreographically, how you can build ideas of story, but at the same time dissect the importance of context on the contemporary dance stage.

Your work has always been divisive. Cowpuncher was criticised for a perceived lack of depth. How did you react to that critique at the time? How do you feel about it now?

Holly Blakey: I love that the work is divisive. I wouldn’t ever want people to feel like it was meek or polite. The Times described the dancers as ‘dancehall whores’. We loved that, though it also showed me their lack of cultural footing. Equally The Guardian described the dancers as ‘more at home in the pages of Dazed magazine than in the Wild West’. This said all I needed to know: the dance world and it's institution are fucking late to the party, it’s locked into a certainty of popular culture being ‘other’ and ‘low brow’. My work is popular culture, I'm not going to apologise for that.

Was Cowpuncher any less ‘successful’ for you personally as a result of the criticism it received? 

Holly Blakey: It was less successful for other reasons that were my fault, things I didn’t achieve within the work. Fuck those guys; they handed me another pistol to start part two.

In the two years between Cowpuncher and Cowpuncher My Ass, how has your practice – and your mindset – evolved?

Holly Blakey: I’m a lot kinder to myself. I give myself more time, I’m more generous, I don’t drink as much and I eat better.

You have undergone a significant change in the last two years too, recently becoming a mother. How has the birth of your first child impacted your practice as an artist, director and choreographer – the themes you feel drawn to, the way that you make work?

Holly Blakey: Things just make a lot more sense to me now. What’s important has shifted, things are messy, I’m exhausted in a whole new way. I also recognise the power of my body and can’t quite believe the things women go through on that mad journey. My work is based on feeling, small things that break your heart every day, having a little life in your arms is all of that.

Cowpuncher is a radical reimagining of spaghetti westerns, the story of a band of outsiders, people who exist beyond the frames of convention. You're working with some new dancers this time around. Tell me about them. 

Holly Blakey: Two new dancers join the cast this time around and as with all the cast, their lack of uniformity is what shapes the work. The two new dancers continue this message, belonging as a group by allowing difference, finding the unity in the mess of their difference.

You're returning to work with Mica Levi and Andreas Kronthaler, who made Cowpuncher’s soundscape and costumes. Can you give us an idea of what we can expect from them this time?

Holly Blakey: We’re working within the world but continuing to reimagine where that can land within our Western landscape. Mica’s music always surprises me, always shifts where my intention initially landed and lets me see it in a new capacity. I might have been working with a certain beat that later is totally stripped back to simply a rolling motorway. With Andreas and Vivienne Westwood more generally, I feel like they inherently subvert the idea of the cowboy, with or without my show, so their practice, their designs, please the palate without too much effort. The clothes sit perfectly on our little mongrel cast: imperfect, exaggerated, reimagined and in cowboy boots.

Cowpuncher My Ass plays at the South Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on 7 February and 8 February 2020