Review: Cowpuncher My Ass, The Southbank Centre

Hair, fabric and bass aplenty, choreographer Holly Blakey returns to the Southbank Centre for a refreshed commissioned version of 2018’s Cowpuncher. The tension-baked deserts of the Western film genre as its playground, Cowpuncher My Ass, an intoxicating collaboration between Blakey, the costumes of Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood and the sounds of Mica Levi, indulgently revels in a spectacular and self-aware excess of the outlaw, the outside and the outrageous.

The choreography skates brilliantly between simplicity, complete expressionistic and sexual abundance. Nothing of the choreography seems in place just to fill a gap or to brandish a performer’s virtuosity (although this performance was overflowing with it) and every contact made between the dancers is charged with meaning and narrative. Clearly incorporating and skewing elements of her commercial choreographic background as well as features of country western dance that climax in an electrified line dance, Blakey maintains accessibility whilst offering an invigorating showcase of what genre-defying contemporary dance can do. Moving in fiery raves and neat motifs in a collage of power and desire, these are characters that dance and live together but oh so far apart. 

Kronthaler’s costume design also cleverly chews up and obscures different facets of western fashion: from two pairs of flowing chaps, to a giant hat, to fringing that engulfs an entire body. With these dynamic designs, seven different bold characters step forth and clash in their first appearance, visually foreshadowing the inevitable showdown to come. With ambitious fashion choices that seem to have their own arresting choreographies, tensions between the dancers and their own costumes are also inevitable, but land thoughtfully in vulnerable discourses of forced gendered expression that culminate in the stripping and revealing of a fair amount of promised ass (one even dances for us!).

After a first half that drenches its spectators in the audience-performer standoff and uncomfortable self-awareness of raised house lights, I’m filled with both relief and tension when the blackout we all expect at the beginning finally happens. After this, Edward Saunders’s lighting design is made even more of a spectacle; perhaps it is down to this that I found much of it to work against the dancers in washing out and diluting the rawness of their bodies and performances by comparison, in favour of a strange dream-like artifice. This, along with an obtrusive moment of falling confetti towards the end, reveals a level of production that could potentially do with scaling back. 

From heady bass to excruciatingly high pitch, Levi’s sound and music is designed to be both heard and felt in equal measure. Her success in composition for cinema shines through as the dancers find rhythm and story in sinister droning electric guitars and a soundtrack that feels more like a swelling complimentary score than its own spectacle. Sound effects including car engines and gunshots that make emotive use of panning across the speakers are harrowing, used economically and imaginatively to remind us where we are in this western (non)narrative.

Having not seen its predecessor, I can only assume that Cowpuncher My Ass was a worthy revival of a calculated clash of artists and their respective crafts. Since it’s, criminally, only playing twice, we should all look forward to seeing what else might come out of this exciting threesome in the future.

Cowpuncher My Ass played Queen Elizabeth Hall until 8 February. For more information and tickets, see the Southbank Centre website.