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★★☆☆☆ Queen El­iz­a­beth Hall, Lon­don

Styled by the Vivi­enne West­wood stu­dio and throw­ing shapes to the thrash and shim­mer of Mica Levi’s elec­tronic score, the eight cow­punch­ers of Holly Blakey’s new work look as though they’d be more at home in the pages of Dazed magazine than in the wild west. Blakey has good rea­son for us­ing Cow­puncher – the not-so-gen­der-spe­cific vari­ant on “cow­boy” – as the ti­tle for her piece. Al­though she’s taken the rogue, root­less out­law of cow­boy leg­end as her ba­sic in­spi­ra­tion, she’s used that im­age to cel­e­brate a far more gen­er­alised world of out­siders, es­pe­cially those who live on the fringes of sex­ual def­i­ni­tion.

Her dancers – five women and three men – are cos­tumed by An­dreas Kron­thaler across a freefloat­ing spec­trum of pos­si­bil­i­ties. Some of the women might be dressed as raunchy bar­maids or west­ern belles, un­am­bigu­ously girly in laced-up bodices, flounces and chintz. But one of the men wears a flow­ered tea frock and has his hair in a plait, while an­other sports the chal­leng­ing com­bi­na­tion of cow­boy boots and Lurex-span­gled loin­cloth.

Blakey’s chore­og­ra­phy is sim­i­larly rooted in clas­sic cow­boy mo­tifs – and sim­i­larly fluid with gen­der. The five women open the work as if to the prairie-born, hun­kered down in the hips and go­ing through the stylised mo­tions of hurl­ing a lasso. If the men ini­tially dom­i­nate the stage, with their strut­ting, trig­ger­happy machismo, Blakey has them join the women in fleet-footed line dances and al­lows them mo­ments of re­veal­ing, del­i­cate sen­su­al­ity, or crum­pled pain.

I love the premise of Cow­puncher, and there are sec­tions where Blakey and her col­lab­o­ra­tors make it fly. Jenni Pysty­nen’s light­ing is par­tic­u­larly fine, bak­ing the stage in desert heat and giv­ing it a smoky sun­set glow. Ul­ti­mately, how­ever, it feels like a pro­duc­tion in thrall to its own im­age. Too of­ten the chore­og­ra­phy set­tles for the strik­ing pic­ture when it should be min­ing the riches of its source lan­guage; too of­ten it opts for the su­per­fi­cial at­ti­tude when it could be prob­ing more deeply be­neath the skins of these stylishly equiv­o­cal, post­mod­ern out­laws.

Vivi­enne West­wood’s wild west … Cow­puncher

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