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Cowpuncher review at Southbank Centre – ‘inspired Wild West re-imagining’

Scene from Cowpuncher at Southbank Centre, London. Photo: Pete Woodhead Scene from Cowpuncher at Southbank Centre, London. Photo: Pete Woodhead
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Cowpuncher is a collaborative project with pulling power. In addition to costumes by Vivienne Westwood’s partner Andreas Kronthaler, it’s scored by celebrated young composer Mica Levi, Oscar-nominated for her work on 2016’s Jackie. Choreographer Holly Blakey, meanwhile, is best known for her commercial work, including videos for Florence and the Machine and Gucci.

Part of the programme for the newly refurbished Queen Elizabeth Hall’s opening week, Cowpuncher is saddled with expectation and often struggles under the weight, though at times it sprints into life. Playing with the tropes of Western movies, it opens in a broad style, legible for those of us more familiar with Oklahoma! than the John Wayne oeuvre: a pack of female dancers slowly develop a loose-hipped, lassoing motion against a scorched orange backdrop.

Kronthaler’s costumes – bodices and skirts askew – are like Les Mis meets the prairie. He ups the cowboy-camp factor with the arrival of two prowling buckaroos – one sports bulging blue satin instead of denim, the other just a black neckerchief and some pants draped in a spangly loincloth.

Levi’s score avoids obvious hoe-downs – it’s a powerful and modish mixture of agitated strings, mammoth bass and screaming saxophone, to which the dancers sometimes respond with an enjoyably insouciant swoop and swagger.

There are brutal couplings, neat canterings, scenes of eroticism and obstetrical urgency between women. Unfortunately, this rich and imaginative seam of physicality isn’t fully developed, and the dance is hampered by longueurs – an extended toothache sequence, some suggestive arse waggling – that remain superficial and underwhelming.

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Sometimes inspired re-imagining of Wild West gender norms featuring Vivienne Westwood costumes