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“Dance exists when we run out of things to say”: choreographer Holly Blakey on her life and practise

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“I try to work on instinct as much as possible,” choreographer Holly Blakey admits. “I’m not indulging myself too much: I try not to overthink it. And, you know, I’ll wake up tomorrow and change it all probably.” Perched halfway up the stone staircase in the converted church-cum-community arts centre Islington Arts Factory, Holly is stealing time from two days of rehearsals which will form the backbone of her performance Abide at Convergence, a three day-long art, music and tech festival in Shoreditch. As bass rolls down the stairs towards us, Holly stands up. I follow her through the studio door towards chaos. Musicians Darkstar and Gwilym Gold skulk in the corner on laptops while stylist Hannah Hopkins squeezes half-naked dancers into ornate net dresses designed by Westminster graduate Philip Luu. Holly stands in the middle, the room’s conductor, directing energy wherever it is needed most.

“I’ve danced since I was three. I feel like I’ve never not danced actually,” the north Yorkshire-born choreographer tells me. But a period of mental illness as a teenager ruled out dancing for a time and, when she was discharged from hospital, Holly found it difficult to get into dance school. “I carried this quite nasty grudge with myself for what had happened,” she says. “Because I’d trained all my life, I felt like I’d made this silly issue for myself by becoming ill.” Re-auditioning eventually led to a place at Roehampton university, where Holly’s underdog mentality transformed into an unexpected power. “I continued to think that I needed to catch up so much that I trained so, so hard after uni every day. I wonder if I would have had that same hunger if things had been more easy for me.”

Aged 24, Holly was asked to choreograph a music video for Mercury Prize-nominated singer songwriter Jessie Ware. “Everything very much shifted: what I wanted to do and where I found myself,” Holly says. “I suddenly realised that I had never felt like a confident performer. It wasn’t a sad thing: this was where I needed to be. I needed to be making stuff not being in it.” Freed from self-doubt, she was soon choreographing music videos for Florence and the Machine, Coldplay, Young Fathers and Jungle, fashion films for Dior, Gucci, Paul Smith and Claire Barrow, directing her own music videos for musicians including Gwilym Gold, Klyne and Mabel and collaborating with Oscar nominated composer Mica Levi. In 2016, Holly won a UK MVA for Best Choreography in a Video for Florence and the Machine’s Delilah and a nomination for Best New Director.

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“I was very interested in the way that my contemporary dance circles, by which I mean my peers, looked down on the fact that I started moving into this commercial realm,” she says. “It was seen as a very much less valued form of art. So I started making work about how when work is made for the masses it holds less value. I started thinking about that relationship between people and who finds themselves more worthy of art than others and who’s setting those values. The problem there is one of structure in schools, what people think dance is, or should be. My work tries to challenge those ideals I suppose.”

Whether working as a director or choreographer or both, Holly’s creative vision is eclipsing, existing far beyond the perceived rules of dance. Take Abide, which started life as a conversation with musician and visual artist Woodkid at the Michelberger music festival in Berlin last year. Woodkid approached Holly with five strands of music – one for each of Holly’s five dancers at the time – and the idea of making a performance based on happenstance. “Each of the five dancers had a strand of music to respond to, and when he played it, they were activated,” Holly explains. “When he turned a strand of music off they were deactivated. At the time, when we were workshopping these ideas, Woodkid was just playing the best music. Whether it meant someone was on or off it didn’t change what he was going to do. He just played. It started shifting ways of thinking for me.”

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Abide quickly became more refined. “We learnt that at the end of the day we were doing a dance performance and we had to make sure that it had everything existing at the right time,” Holly says. Collaborating closely with Woodkid, Holly live conducted the work on stage. “I wouldn’t really know what I was going to do before I did it. I worked on instinct as we were performing in front of 2,000 people. I loved the idea that the movement material started to grow this quite robust quality. It had a strong image to it, but there was a huge sense of flippancy to the way in which we were creating it or it was existing as a live performance.”

Since then, Holly has been developing the idea of live conducting by turning her gaze on classic tragedy. “Ancient Greek plays or Shakespearean plays have this huge sense of tragedy and dramatic arc, and I started wondering if I could implement those notions into this flippant way of making choreography, so that it would have this huge weight on one side, and a throwaway aspect on another,” she says.

For Convergence, Holly teamed up with long-time collaborators Dark Star and Gwilyn Gold. The two sets of musicians created six strands of music each, one for each performer which could be played in any order to create a unique, one-off performance. Each cast member embodied one strand of music and a single synonym of tragedy — failure, calamity. The flip of a coin decided that Darkstar would play first, a clock was set for 15 minutes and the dancers began. As Darkstar sat po-faced at the edge of the stage, hoods pulled up over their skulls, Holly whispered directions in their ears, her eyes locked on the performers moving increasingly frantically as if unravelling before her. Darkstar’s 15 minutes over, it was Gwilym’s turn. This second time, the dance threads were more familiar but their sequencing stayed as unpredictable to the audience as it was to the musicians. An iPhone alarm rang out, ending the performance as instinctively as it had begun.

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