this new show features gender-binary-rejecting cowboys in vivienne westwood
London’s iconic Queen Elizabeth Hall reopens tonight with Cowpuncher, a new show combining Holly Blakey choreography, Mica Levi music and Vivienne Westwood clothing for a gender-bending reimagining of the Western genre.
Like so many people before her, choreographer and director Holly Blakey just wanted to make a Western. The American epic has seduced filmmakers since the ambitious 1903 film, The Great Train Robbery, began the genre's 60 year reign in Hollywood. “I wanted to do something really celebratory and exciting and joyful,” Holly says, when we meet in an upstairs room of the Vivienne Westwood Flagship Store on London’s busy Conduit Street. “And then, of course, you start your research and very quickly, you notice there's a lot of politics surrounding it all.”
We’re at the Westwood store as it’s Westwood who has provided the costumes for the Cowpuncher, or, more accurately, her husband and co-designer, Andreas, from his Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood spring/summer 2018 show. Described in the pages of this website as “a multi-layered and multi-gendered collection”, it became the perfect springboard from which to subvert the cowboy as a rugged symbol of masculinity.
“I love that,” Holly agrees. “Yes, the cowboy is this super alpha male figure but, at the same time, the dichotomy that exists is this wildly gay iconography that surrounds it. And I find that balance really funny and relevant.”
She continues. “I'm interested in the cowboy boot, what it does to the body when you walk. I'm interested in the cowboy boot does to restrict movement, to restrict choreography and what's born from that place. For me, it's about using all of these different things to express or to be frank and blatant about what they are really offering in the world…. Does that make any sense?”
It does, but only because the Yorkshire-born choreographer’s work has always found a sweet spot between accessible and challenging, be it the videos she’s worked on for properly massive mainstream artists such as Coldplay, Jungle and Florence Welch, or her work with more experimental acts such as Mica Levi (who also provides the music for Friday's one-off performance). “I don't enter into something necessarily, trying to tick certain boxes in that way, I just work on instinct,” Holly describes. “And, I think, because I want things to be inclusive and I care about people having access to art, I wonder if it's just zipped into the language.”
For this performance, she wanted to use the formula of the Western to explore the way in which women are treated and spaces are owned. “I read a statistic that horses appear more often in Westerns than women, so I wanted to reclaim a space for women with a certain female strength that exists within it,” she says. “I’m not making big wild comment on specific things, but I do want to use dance as a language to say things you can’t really express with words. I do want to use all these textures to create a performance.”
Of course, communicating things you can’t really express with words is something Westwood has been doing since its early, rebellious beginnings at 430 Kings Road, when punk was at its apex and Westwood was its safety pinned message-maker-in-chief. “They felt like the perfect people to collaborate with,” Holly says. “Andreas's collection is western, it's cowboy, there’s an element of the priory to it, but it's always reformed and reshaped into something more current. Shifting and rearranging who can wear these different items and what that means and how that reads to the audience.
“I want people to feel a sense of excitement and happiness and I want to challenge their perception of this performance and me and this collaboration," she says. "I want to create a sort of sandy playground in order to explore things that are right in front of us but we don't always touch on. To have these clothes to work with and to work with these guys in forming this image has just been magical.”
Cowpuncher: Holly Blakey x Mica Levi x Vivienne Westwood is at London’s Southbank this evening, Friday 13 April.