how Holly Blakey became a celebrity choreographer

“People often think I’m trying to be grotesque or shocking, but that couldn’t be further from what I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to be honest,” says Holly Blakey. “I am a choreographer and I want to own this space and be able to be anything: stupid, beautiful, hysterical, sexual, ugly, unrepentant,” she adds, shivering in a North London rehearsal room in a low voice. but confident.

Blakey’s dancing, whether in music videos, fashion campaigns or her live performances, isn’t always pretty. It can be warped and rough, repetitive and relentless, explicitly sexualized. “I want to play with what is acceptable in the contemporary dance scene,” she says. But this is not meant to be alienating; is to be recognizable. “I’m trying to be honest. I try to respect people and say, “We’re all like that.”

However, even the title of her latest show, Cowpuncher My Ass, has something of a contradiction in it. Cowpuncher is an old term for a cowboy, and this track is a remake of her 2018 follow-up to Cowpuncher. When she was asked to do that first job with composer Mica Levi, they came up with the idea for westerns, not because Blakey was a particular movie buff, but because she was fascinated by the cowboy archetype of “hyper masculine but so campy.” – and found a lot to explore in the genre in terms of sexual politics, gender and power. It breaks down stereotypes and presents a motley group of “scruffy” characters (all dressed in Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood), whose bodies squirm, quiver and dance in a line. Or, as the Observer review described it, “a bubbling stew of 100 different dance languages” that “turns into a disgusting frenzy.”

Blakey likes to say that her work does not refer to pop culture, but that her work is pop culture and deals with the language of music, film and television more than dance. “If there’s anything I could aspire to in my live-action work, it’s to make it feel like The Sopranos,” she says. You’ve seen Blakey’s choreography most often in music videos: the one in which Coldplay turns into dancing chimpanzees, for example, and the award-winning Delilah Florence + the Machine, as well as commercials for Jorja Smith, Lianne La Havas and, most recently, Spanish pop superstar Rosalía. (“An amazing person and performer: solid, serious, fearless,” says Blakey.) She’ll work with the singers in the studio, not so much teaching them how to dance as “trying to tap into what’s interesting about them. Sometimes we don’t know what’s interesting about us, right? Other people need to notice it.”

This is the golden age for music video choreography, Blakey believes. “The old idea that you have a narrative that you choreograph some dance around has changed,” she says. “Now dance is an idea, dance is history.” She also works with fashion brands (Dior, Burberry, Gucci) and advertising: she has just returned from shooting a perfume commercial in South Africa with director Romain Gavras, teaching the actor how to run upstairs like a big cat. “My job was to make her feel like a cat,” says Blakey.

This immersion in the world of fashion and music has seen her sit outside the dance club and not follow the obvious path. Born in Harrogate, Blakey began dancing as a child. At first, she just wanted to be a ballerina, but after battling anorexia as a teenager and staying in hospital, she discovered contemporary dance. (“I say I was diagnosed with anorexia, but I don’t think that was the main problem. But when is it, I suppose?”)

Not getting into the best dance schools she auditioned for, she ended up at Roehampton University in South London where she was assigned to teach. “It’s a wonderful thing, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I was devastated, to be honest,” he says. But it was her creation. “It drove me so much. I had so much to prove. She spent all her free time on training outside the university and doing her own work. “I spent a lot of time feeling really excited about it,” he says, “and now I feel really grateful because it allowed me to have my own sense of curiosity, less guided by institutions, and it made me quite furiously involved.”

Another thing that influenced Blakey’s work was her teenage rampages, going to illegal meetings in the country with her sister and dancing non-stop all night long. She loved it, “the activity together, being together, the euphoria, the constant loop of movement.” Life has changed since then (the 35-year-old has two young children with her partner, musician Gwilym Gold), but the instinct remains. “My boyfriend used to say to me, ‘How do you guys practice all day and then want to go out and dance all night – what is this? But dancers are curious beasts; nothing will stop this desire to move.”

In his stage work, Blakey wants to capture this sense of community on the dance floor. He talks about a spiritual feeling, an “earthly, tribal quality”, “clan behaviors that we desire and exist for.” And he wants the audience to be part of that clan. The ways to do this may be unexpected. For example, in Cowpuncher My Ass, the house lights stay on for the first half of the show. The dancers were not happy with this decision: “They were like, ‘What are you talking about, full of light?!’ It suddenly went wide open, there was no mood for them to absorb,” laughs Blakey. “However [in the audience] I feel myself in space, I know who is sitting next to me, what they are thinking and when they wipe their nose. The idea was for the viewers to really be in it, not just watch.”

Not everyone is involved. Blakey has a love/hate reaction to his work and often finds that ordinary dance viewers don’t like it. She is used to divisiveness, although she was surprised by the reaction to Phantom, a video she made for Fact magazine with dancers from the London Contemporary Dance School. The job arrived just a week after the miscarriage, and the job became something of a fluorescent lycra folk fertility ritual steeped in deep anger. “It’s a cry for something that was never meant to come,” he says. “And that caused the stink [online]that movie. So much drama, so many people go crazy: “This is scary! What a terrible idea!’” But Blakey is proud of the film and glad she made it. “Never read the comments,” he regrets. “But I do, and I always torture myself with it.”

Blakey has been working on the Cowpuncher franchise for five years now, “and it’s pretty much dead to me,” he says. A novelty in this last hurray is the collaboration with the London Contemporary Orchestra, whose string players will appear on stage in a new section. Blakey describes the scene, beginning with the edgy, raspy tone of Levi’s soundtrack, then progressing to a beautiful, melodic song. “In a way, the strings come out and just push everything away, kill it, and I just want to take defeat … And I want there to be sweetness in it, a celebration of it, and let it be heartbreak and let it die.” Because things go wrong and life is messy and there is no good solution? “Yeah, why not present it if it’s true,” says Blakey. “Don’t we all feel this way deep down in our hearts and can’t we share it?”

Blakey’s exotic, eccentric characters bear no resemblance to the “real world”, but she somehow wants to reflect it; more than that, in fact – to be it. When I ask her what Cowpuncher is all about, she replies, “People, the way we exist, the way we share things with each other and the way we take things from each other. And the violence that is within us and our deep sense of loneliness and beauty and togetherness and the awful ways we behave. That’s what work is all about.”

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

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