The choreographer discusses her autobiographical work Phantom with Ivan Michael Blackstock.
Whether she is working behind the camera as director and choreographer for Gucci and Dior; collaborating with musicians such as Mica Levi, Yves Tumor and her partner Gwilym Gold; or making her iconoclastic live dance works, including Some Greater Class (2017), Cowpuncher (2018) and Cowpuncher My Ass (2020), Holly Blakey consistently draws from a place of emotional generosity.
“I always try to remember this idea: it’s all yours”, she explains. “I’m giving you something of me, for you to look at something of you.” Through a singular approach to movement she manifests an invocation of honesty and intimacy that is tender and confrontational. “I’ve noticed in everything I’ve done, every single film, every single live show, I’ve always killed a man”, she admits. “There’s always Grand Theft Auto–style violence going on, like a perverse sort of sexy violence. I can’t fucking help it.”
Blakey sat down with choreographer and 180 The Strand artistic director Ivan Michael Blackstock to talk about her autobiographical work, Phantom – originally commissioned by the London Contemporary Dance School for the EDGE Dance Company and commissioned for film by Fact – the United Kingdom’s contemporary dance scene and the importance of trust.
This feature was originally published in Fact’s F/W 2021 issue, which is available to buy here.
IVAN MICHAEL BLACKSTOCK: There’s a lot of strong symbolism in Phantom. What are you taking into your creative space to build something like that?
HOLLY BLAKEY: I wanted to articulate this very honest encounter, which was my miscarriage. I always enjoy how something could be exploring both female pleasure and extraordinary pain at the same time, how you can allow things to have a sense of hysteria about them. I like to own the idea that women have forever been these hysterical creatures and let things be wild and vigorous. I’m always interested in how you can use pop choreography that you might associate with music videos to have many conversations.
IMB: How did you find empowerment within your own sexuality to be brave enough to pull it into your work? I’ve noticed that sometimes when women are making work they feel like they have to adopt a ‘masculine’ approach, or something very strong.
HB: I mean, that’s just not who I am as a person. My energy is soft — “feminine”. I try always to allow for that to be my strength and to not be afraid of the traps I could fall into that might imply something of my nature. I’m very okay with not having to be the loudest voice in the room and I’ve learned that it’s a privilege to be calm. I’m not afraid of those things. I’m always trying to think about how frank and honest I can be, how much I’m prepared to give. It was a really long time in the making of Phantom before I told the dancers about the miscarriage.
IMB: Did you see a change at that point?
HB: Yeah, because it was trust. It was suddenly like I’d given them a big part of me, and they met me there, and so therefore they gave up a bit of themselves. I think trust with your dancers is everything, isn’t it? These guys are young, the Phantom lot, they’re students ultimately. It was a lot of information. It wasn’t my dance company, who are much older and have been through the last seven, eight years with me.
IMB: How was that process for you?
HB: It was difficult because in the beginning it was all socially distanced. I was feeling very vulnerable and I went into this room of people I’d never met. I didn’t audition them, they’re all in masks and they’re all quite frightened. I couldn’t read them. I just couldn’t start. I don’t know what your process is in the rehearsal room, but I sometimes start by doing a simple, touch-based improvisational exercise to gain a tactility or a trust between people, but none of those things were available. So everything suddenly was very separate and I felt even more on my own. It was tricky.
IMB: Phantom has a lot to do with ritual. Is your process somewhat ritualistic? Did you have to build a new ritual for these dancers?
HB: I’m always interested in regurgitating or bastardising typical, almost problematic dance styles. With Cowpuncher it’s line dancing, like a cowboy dance. With Phantom, there’s a huge part of British culture, and of Scottish and Irish culture, that have these pagan choreographies. I don’t necessarily love where they stem from, but I’m interested in understanding their roots and their essence. They’re all social dance forms, and I’m interested in people much more than dancing or dancers; the way in which they behave, their clan-like qualities, their tribalistic qualities, their need for togetherness and connection. I see in all of those forms these little expressions that have flourished through togetherness, or violence, or protest or whatever it might be.
IMB: How did the collaboration with Chopova Lowena come about?
HB: What I love about Chopova Lowena is that their roots are Bulgarian, and they make their clothes from fabrics from Bulgaria, almost like traditional national outfits, and it seemed fitting to me that the pieces were like kilts. I also like to embrace female sexuality without using conventional tropes. I tried to find ways in which a modern woman might approach that, so there might be bits of flesh, or an ugly pair of pants or a thong, to hone these two ideas at the same time.
IMB: That’s why I really like your work, because it doesn’t touch on the basic. There is a secret that you allow yourself to share with people. How has it been working with Gwilym? I don’t know how you do it.
HB: The thing with us is that we’ve always worked, since before we were together. That’s just always been a part of our relationship. In our house there’s a little studio at the back and then his music studio as well. We’re working there, making things, all the time. I fundamentally trust and rate him, no matter what. I believe what he does, and with that comes this huge freedom to create. There’s no stress or drama behind it. But he’s also my biggest critic.
IMB: With the choreography as well?
HB: Always with the choreography! He can be really ruthless. It’s hard to hear sometimes, but I love that feedback. I love it when someone doesn’t bullshit you.
IMB: Sometimes you need that feedback outside of the dance world, because we are making work for people, not just our community.
HB: Yes! That is so key to me. I want to make it for everyone. I want to make work that reaches people.
IMB: I think the type of work we create is risk taking. I’ve been building it for so long, so I’m willing to walk the plank, but a lot of people aren’t going to like it.
HB: Sometimes you have to show people the potential of what things can be.
IMB: Yeah, totally. If you want raw, allow it to be raw. I haven’t got an art background, my art background has been YouTube and picking up books. I come from dance, dance is the thing that kind of sparked the world of art for me. Where I’m interested in seeing dance is on the face of magazines, winning awards. It’s about time! It’s up to the dance artists and dance makers to position ourselves to make something new. You have to do something, be about it! This is a time for us to step up to the plate and shift culture. I think that the dance scene is one of the most talented scenes out there. During my career I’ve learned how to be a lighting designer, costume maker, producer, choreographer, manager and show performer. Sometimes we’re cutting the music ourselves! I know dancers who are amazing photographers or painters and I get bamboozled as to why they haven’t done an exhibition. I want people to exercise their creativity a little bit more. Where do you feel like you sit in the dance scene at the moment?
HB: I feel very similarly to you. I felt like there wasn’t a home for me in any particular space so I went and found something for myself. It can be quite a lonely space because I’m not a part of this group or that group and I can feel like I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. You have to have a lot of self belief. I’m really tired of people telling me I need to navigate certain things in order to achieve certain things, that’s actually never worked for me. That’s not why I’m where I am. I think the dance scene, like you said, is completely rich, but I feel like the institution that holds it together is small and constricted.
IMB: And film? Is there more in the making, or a break? Or is it a feature film next?
HB: Oh my gosh, I’d love to make a feature. Film is such a huge part of my practice and in a way that hasn’t really been intentional. It’s just how things have happened. I recently made a short, Triptych, which is yet to be released. It’s one of the most precious things to me, a commission from Francis Bacon Estate to respond, for want of a better word, to Bacon. The work exists on three screens and was shot by Daniel Landin BSC and performed by dancers Grace Jabbari and Illyr. I do think that there’s an oversaturation of dance in film at the moment, it’s just everywhere! How do you find a way to approach it in a fresh sense? It’s very samey right now, would you agree?
IMB: I totally agree, it’s the same old stuff. I think it’s our job to find ways to communicate. It’s about getting over ourselves at times, as well as being allowed to dream really big. My dreams are huge! I believe it’s possible now, especially after working with someone like Beyoncé. We don’t realise how we are changing culture. Sometimes we get stuck in our small bubble of London, or the United Kingdom, when there’s this other person, from over there, looking at you and building a whole scene, just from being inspired by what you do. Where are you looking to take your stuff now? With the way the world is going there’s so much to say at the moment. There are so many different ways people are looking after having an incubation period during this lockdown.
HB: I feel like I burned out a little bit, so I’m stopping again. I’m reading and I’m training. I have another show that I’m working towards, which is the third iteration and the final part of the Cowpuncher series which incorporates a new section of Mica Levi’s score with London Contemporary Orchestra. The work is made, it’s already there, it’s just about revisiting it, looking back at it and wondering how relevant things are. If you try to be relevant all the time you fall into a disingenuous trap, I think it’s about being authentic. Honing in on your truth is the most important thing. Pausing, stopping, training, really working on what it is, that’s what I want to do next.
INTRODUCTION: Henry Bruce-Jones
INTERVIEW: Ivan Michael Blackstock
This feature was originally published in Fact’s F/W 2021 issue, which is available to buy here.
Read next: Interview: Richard Mosse