Wednesday = anus in face.
Just another week in the dance world…
Let's talk about the recent past later. First, we discuss Holly Blakey Presents: Cowpuncher My Ass at the Southbank Centre for one night only (15 February).
The piece was originally performed in 2018 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and returns to the Royal Festival Hall with seven performers and 20 members of the London Contemporary Orchestra bringing Mica Levi's original score to life.
The marketing department has been pushing the show: a video doing the rounds hears Blakey describe her work as ugly and desiring it to look like the violent computer game Grand Theft Auto. Quite the aphrodisiac.
Cowpuncher is a synonym for Cowboy, but can also mean poke or punch… so read that as you will. Regardless, Blakey doesn't use the Wild West as an obvious form of backdrop. I saw two clear lasso moments but little else.
Forgive me for stating the obvious, but the Festival Hall is not a venue for dance and never will be. Cavernous with no proscenium – a concert space. This isn't helped by the production's opening section seemingly void of aesthetic consideration. However that's probably the point. #ugly
The work can be divided into four sections, all including movement:
1 – the happening. The house lights stay up, and the stage is lit (Edward Saunders) in a very purposeful, basic way. The audience don't quite know what to do, so it all lacks a sense of cohesion, and that's where we, or definitely I, resided.
2 – the performance. The house lights turn off section by section, which feels very contrived, and the stage is suddenly lit overtly: slime green, blood red.
3 – the concert. The 20 musicians arrive in a slow procession and then bow in an agitato style for around 10 minutes. I didn't want to talk about movement yet, but it's a necessity. A lone dancer crawls in between the musos and then does the splits. Profound.
4 – the final section segues from the concert and reverts to the earlier performance vibe.
Blakey clearly wants to disrupt in both staging and content, yet she references the fourth wall throughout, so even though the creative experience doesn't seem to be shaped for the observer in an obvious, conventional manner, the work could still be perceived as being designed for them.
As for the content, it's defo a mixed bag, but with evident skill, by both choreographer and committed dancers. Though one wonders how ‘hands on' Blakey is during the process. Is the work painstakingly set, or is it more task-based improvisation that's then curated and produced?
For most of the event the cast of seven feel disconnected even throughout their connectedness – distant stares and internalised expression are the palpable flava. Unison moments feel strong and evoke both Shechter-style adrenaline and Janet Jackson regimental, Rhythm Nation-type drilling. But after the extended amuse-bouche of individual (random) stalking, crawling (cattle reference or too literal?) and Planet of the Apes on all fours running, the unison offerings feel like too much of a hard sell. Screaming ‘I am a dance piece, god damn it!'
There's also a lot of twerking involved. Committed, exhaustive twerking, that includes the exposing of three derrières. The first outing in the happening section is full on, and vacuous (like those that follow). A gentleman revealed his bottom, stuck it in the air, arched his back, and then pulled himself across the stage all during a physical and emotional breakdown of sorts. Some audience members being right in the line of fire. Verging on interactive I'd say.
The second rendition came after a long session of twerking with added hairography and lassoing in section 4. The female dancer revealed her bottom as she lay down and continued exuding a gentle, constant jelly-like ripple when the main body of twerking subsided. Mesmerising in its own way.
The third was of course the closing of the evening. Another female dancer entered as snow fell (?) and offered haphazard, semaphore in style, arm movements. She then turned around slowly and peekaboo. Blackout.
Mica Levi's score was as random as the rest of the experience but likewise skilled. Its range includes electric guitar thrashing, bass reverb that will get the council involved, conducive sections of regular percussive beat, moments of haunting melodies, agitato strings (see above) and what can only be described as a recurring soundbite of a motorway. Yep… random.
The lewk (costuming) is by Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood. It's very Westwood in the way it falls and works well in movement with choreography as a catalyst.
The performance was dedicated to the recently deceased Westwood, and I think she would've enjoyed it. Blakey does a lot of work in the Fashion and Music scenes, and her sector contemporaries were there in droves. She clearly knows who her audience is.
If you're a creative but not primarily in dance, I think most would consider it the dog's bollocks. But if you're a dance aficionado, it's probably a bit tiresome – and that's being very generous. I read Blakey said she felt the five-year-old piece was nearing its death, and this bold assertion got me thinking. When creatives create, do they contemplate the possible longevity of a work during the making process? And if so, does this mindset impact the creation itself? I don't want this to last so I'll approach it in a disposable and freer manner versus every decision I make needs to have fundamental, foundational value. I wonder what Ashton was thinking when creating Symphonic Variations…
The ideal work (probably) embodies both – something simultaneously ephemeral (interpretation) and structural (choreographic score). I believe we need art that lasts, otherwise where can we find perspective, to either reference or shun? I'm sure Blakey's successful career to date will continue to flourish, as she clearly has a following. The Festival Hall was packed and applauding vigorously. I left quietly as they did so, craving something between a lobotomy and a quadruple bill of Van Manen. Without tempting fate too much, I wonder which will be first. Answers on a postcard.
Creating art isn't easy, but neither is analysing it. Both take high levels of critical thinking, and there must be room for them. Ego is often the issue. It's difficult to stay humble and open; whatever the day job. Self-belief is a necessity in the inherently demoralising Arts sector… but unquestioned, and it becomes dangerous. Quickly. Closed dictatorships are just that, whereas openness allows for continued learning, and surely an open mind is more capable of deeper critical thinking, therefore enabling a better end result. Realistically it's impossible to like everything a person makes… or writes. But let's find strategies that don't involve actual, or figurative shite. And keep the animals out of it bitte.
Criticism is about the work – it isn't personal – but in the Arts the work tends to be created by an individual, so the lines are blurred even before they've been created. It's verging on an impossible predicament. So fundamentally it needs to come down to imperative, respectful, critical dialogue.
It's also interesting to consider what a global commotion some actual poop can cause. People in positions of power within the Arts have been metaphorically lobbing shite, and we're talking vats of the stuff, for years at subordinates, or peers who directly question them, and… basically tumbleweed. Or at least nowhere near enough questioning or protest in the public sphere. And now, the one time we can actually see, and indeed smell, the disrespect, it's become a major issue. This says far more about the existing sector than just this unfortunate, isolated event. Referencing what's been allowed and continues to be enabled within some artistic folds without resistance or accountability resolve.
Closing argument: don't live for feedback. But don't live without it either. Dankeschön.
Matthew Paluch was awarded a place at The Royal Ballet School in 1990 where he graduated in 1997. His first four years as a professional dancer were spent working with London City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, K-Ballet and English National Ballet, becoming a full-time member of ENB until leaving in 2006.
Matthew graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, Professional Dancers' Teaching Diploma in 2007, and was fomerly on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011 and has been a freelance writer since 2010. He is a Trustee (2021) of the Royal Academy of Dance and works in the Law Sector.