Director and choreographer Holly Blakey opens her Fact Residency with a collaboration with Mica Levi, a seething audiovisual portrait of dancer and actor Nandi Bhebhe.

In all of her work, across stage and screen, movement and direction, Holly Blakey continually draws from a place of incredible emotional generosity. “I always try and remember this idea: it’s all yours, it’s all yours,” she explains. “I’m giving you something of me, for you to look at something of you. You know when you read your favorite book and you swear it’s been written about you and your life. I want my work to do that.” From her work behind the camera as director and choreographer, for fashion houses such as Gucci and Dior and musicians such as Mica Levi, Yves Tumor and her partner Gwilym Gold, to her boundary-shattering, iconoclastic live works staged at the Southbank Centre, including Some Greater Class (2017), Cowpuncher (2018) and Cowpuncher My Ass (2020), Blakey is always committed to offering something of herself up to her audience. Through movement she builds an invocation to an honesty and intimacy that is at once tender and confrontational. “When I’m making work I want to be honest,” she levels. “I want for that honesty to create connections with people who watch it.”

Because of this Blakey’s audiences often find themselves in an intensely personal place, firmly yanked from anything resembling a comfort zone. “Everything is about you in some way or another,” she insists. “You’re exorcising parts of yourself. My work is not about pretty straight lines, or beautiful legs. A lot of people do that and do it really well. I’m not from that place.” On the contrary, the characters found in Blakey’s work are deviants, killers and club kids, impossible to pin down and constantly in flux, inhabiting difficult spaces in difficult ways. Oscillating from intricately wrought choreography to thrillingly loose physicality, Blakey’s movement teeters on the precipice between catharsis and comedy. “I tend to work with a rigor that comes from something much more personal to me,” she explains. “It’s always like therapy. Because I’m quite a direct person I don’t want to flower things up with other language, I just want to get to the point.”

Wrath

“I’m very interested in people,” she continues. “When I speak about dance, I’m interested in the way people dance in clubs or at parties, when they are at the truest form of expressing themselves. I’m interested in that kind of dancing. I feel the most connected to people when I witness dancing like that.” It’s in this mode that the director and choreographer opens her Fact Residency with Wrath, a “gum chewing, colour changing portrait” of actress and dancer Nandi Bhebhe. Describing Bhebhe as a muse of hers, Blakey has worked with the performer for close to a decade, collaborating on a number of solo works that stem, in Blakey’s own words, from an overwhelming sense of affection and adoration. “I’ve made solo works with her, just me adoring her really, just her in the camera and me watching her,” she explains, “sometimes in a way that’s extremely choreographed and other times in a way that’s based on her uncovering ideas and feelings with me. She’s just quite remarkable.”

Wrath also marks the genesis of a long-running creative partnership with experimental musician and composer Mica Levi, who most recently contributed head-spinning, mutant scores to Blakey’s lives shows Cowpuncher and Cowpuncher My Ass, which spin the toxic maschismo and fetishisitic aesthetics of Spaghetti Westerns into frantic displays of outlaw libido and cultural commentary. Bringing together Mica Levi and Nandi Bhebhe into a single swirling piece, Blakey’s creative method, driven by an irrepressible urge to connect in a shared intimacy, shines from every inch of Bhebhe’s writhing hands and in each of Levi’s queasy guitar loops. Commissioned by Channel 4 for their Random Acts shorts series and stemming from a week-long residency at the Southbank Centre Blakey participated in with Levi back in 2016, Wrath documents a short excerpt of a longer live work. “We built this thing first of all with acoustic guitar and Nandi was singing and moving. It had this more aggressive guitar that happened in the tail end of it and that became the film,” recalls Blakey. “The building of that film was really mutual, we all did everything together in a way. It was a real collison of all three of us.”

“It’s been an absolute dream time working with Holly over the years,” says Bhebhe. “I remember first coming into Holly’s audition room and I immediately felt a connection to her energy, her way of working and something raw and real in the movement. I felt like she got me. Working with Holly and Mica on Wrath was a special one. I found great liberation and empowerment in accessing that emotional space.”

Wrath

Cribbing the title from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which Blakey attributes to inspiring both Wrath and Cowpuncher, she explains that the red sand that spills across Bhebhe’s dance floor is a direct allusion to an opening sequence from the book that stuck with her long after first reading it. “There’s a gas station and there’s this red, pouring clay in the wind that’s blowing, it’s pulling the ground up,” she describes. “These images of the Wild West, the sparse landscape that’s too brutal in its existence, that confronts you all the time.” These are the harsh environments that provide Blakey with a stage, within which she situates her wretched, beautiful characters. Gradually building in intensity, heralded by a lo-fi fanfare of monotonous choirs and muffled windchimes, Levi’s score engenders a shift in Bhebhe’s movement, from slow and strained to frenetic and primal. Distorted guitar wails give way to ragged percussion as Bhebhe spins, shakes and stares.

Like Blakey’s urgent invocation to honesty and intimacy, there is something incredibly generous about Bhebhe’s performance and Levi’s ragged score. While watching Wrath you get the sense that some of these are movements Bhebe makes when no one is watching, or that these are the riffs that loop endlessly in Mica Levi’s head. It’s testament to Holly Blakey’s emotional and artistic generosity that we are granted witness to these moments of frustration, vulnerability and rage. “I just try and be as generous as possible. If you’re doing that then the people around you want to do that, too. That’s what I find,” Blakey affirms. “That’s life though, isn’t it? That’s true of life as well.”

Wrath

For more information about Holly Blakey and her work, follow her on Instagram.

Wrath Credits:

Director – Holly Blakey
Executive Producer – Mary Calderwood @ LEZ Creative
Producer – Archie Holloway
Editor – Meg Thorne
Director of Photography – Adam Scarth
Focus Puller – Eira Wynn Jones
2nd Assistant Camera – Evan Trout
DIT – Archie Hollway
Gaffer – Hunter Daly
Electrician – Harvard Helle
Electrician – Adrian Atkinson
Makeup Artist – Harriet Todd
Post Production – Glassworks
Music – Mica Levi
Dancer – Nandi Bhebhe