Theatre Antoine Vitez
QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL SOUTHBANK CENTRE London
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There’s a brilliant voiceover in Hard to Be Soft, in which a young woman describes herself and her friends in Oona Doherty’s home town of Belfast: “This little bubble that has tragedy in the walls.” Their defiance has a physical manifestation, she says, the importance of putting on a good face. “If you’re in a shit-hole but you look fucking amazing there’s something really empowering about that … They’re superstars in this granite-like stagnancy … just for putting on their armour and getting on with the day.”
In Hard to be Soft, Doherty elevates the defiance, pride and resilience of the tough, sometimes maligned working-class men and women around her, while scratching at the vulnerability underneath. All the while, choral voices rise in charged crescendo, underlining the beauty and horror that religion has bestowed on this city and these lives.
She is only at the outset of her career but Doherty’s shows at this year’s Edinburgh international festival and Dance Umbrella made her look like the most exciting young voice in contemporary dance. The chameleonic choreographer herself transformed into callow yet cocksure young men, sour-faced and swaggering, putting up a brittle shell against the world. Purely as a piece of physical metamorphosis it was masterful, but Doherty’s work is so much more than that. LW Read the full review.
Oona Doherty takes on Belfast’s hardest men - Michael Seaver The Irish Times
Part of her ‘Belfast prayer’ is a ‘big tough hug for all those dads, sons and brothers’
Oona Doherty in ‘Hope Hunt’
Performances normally begin with theatre lights dimmed or a curtain raised. Oona Doherty’s Hope Hunt opens with the audience standing outside the theatre, waiting. Suddenly, a black Volkswagon Golf screeches to a halt outside the theatre, music booming from the open windows. Doherty springs out and bounds around confronting the audience; her movements are tightly-strung, aggressive, and with explosive energy bubbling just below the surface.
It’s probably the perfect introduction for Doherty, one of the most exciting talents to emerge in contemporary dance in recent years.
Doherty received the 2016 Dublin Tiger Fringe Award for Best Performance and Hope Hunt was nominated for Best Production. In 2017 it won the Total Theatre Award for Dance at Edinburgh Festival 2017 and Doherty was chosen as one of 20 promising emerging artists selected by the pan-European network Aerowaves. Her latest work Hard To Be Soft: A Belfast Prayer was co-commissioned by Prime Cut Productions, Belfast International Arts Festival, Dublin Dance Festival and the Abbey Theatre. The latter two names suggest that she will appear in the Abbey Theatre in next year’s yet-to-be-announced Dublin Dance Festival.
Her choreography is utterly honest and viscerally intense, and underpinned by an unflinching belief in the power of dance to change people and achieve social justice. “She’s fearless,” says choreographer Emma Martin who worked with her on productions for United Fall and in Enda Walsh’s play Arlington. “Oona commits every cell of her body to an idea. She dances with truth and a belief in the power of movement to stir the air.”
Hope Hunt unpicked male identity, in particular the hyper-masculine physical posturing on street corners and the vulnerability that lies underneath.These men are created by failures within society, a theme expanded in Hard To Be Soft. Doherty reveals embedded behaviour borne of prejudice and neglect in Northern Irish society. And religion is at it’s heart.
“Decisions about moral and human rights are being made in this country based on economic gain and a religious belief system,” she says. “Issues like homelessness, crime, racism, LGBQ rights, women’s rights, pro-choice and gay marriage need to be discussed in an open, empathetic and factual place.”
So why is Hard To Be Soft a “prayer to Belfast”? “The show uses what I think is the glamour of the church, like the godly and the divine. But it places it in the normal everyday.
“For me the church is like an old school theatre. It’s just that the original message of love has got a bit tainted and contorted along the way. I guess in my own way, I’m trying to own some of that back.”
Hard To Be Soft, with music by David Holmes, is divided into four sections, each a live performance of videos that have been released one-by-one over the past month on hardtobesoft.com. Lazarus & The Birds of Paradisedeveloped from Hope Hunt and features Doherty, dressed in white, abstracting in slow motion the gestures and physical language of male aggression. Sugar Army turns its attention to female power and is danced by youth hip-hop group Ajendance.
“When I went to college in Derry, I found the women incredibly strong, almost intimidatingly strong,” says Doherty. She references a story that, in the wake of the industrial revolution, “there were lots of fabric and shirt factories in Derry, so a lot of women were out at work and the men were at home. It is probably a generalisation, but maybe this had something to do with developing really strong women in Derry. In any case, Sugar Army is an ode to this female power.”
“The men in my family, and many other families, aren’t very touchy feely. For hard, working men, holding hands, hugs and affection was a sign of being ‘gay’ and ‘gay’ was not accepted. Even dancing was out to some degree. So Meat Kaleidoscope is a great big tough hug for all those dads, sons and brothers.”
Doherty trained at London School Of Contemporary Dance, the University of Ulster and Laban in London, but she credits fellow professionals for her artistic identity. “These people have total co-ownership of my style because their effect on me lives on in everything I do. Guilherme Miotto basically built me. . . . My muscles, bones and mind were different after Guilherme.”
She credits T.R.A.S.H. choreographer Krystel van Issum with changing how she sees dance, and more recently Emma Martin opening up to new worlds of creativity. “Emma knows how to feed a performer to give them the engine to riff on a concept.”
It’s generous kudos, but Doherty’s choreography already has a firm bedrock of ideals around the dancing body and how it can change society. “I think the way a dancer approaches their body, their emotions, their character and their choreography is a micro version of the way that person approaches their emotions and decisions in their life. This is just like the teachings of the tao and some zen and Buddhist teachings. To practice the understanding of the self and then in turn practice empathy and understanding in others, is, I hope, then the catalyst for social change.”
Hard To Be Soft: A Belfast Prayer is at The Mac from October 26 to 28. belfastinternationalartsfestival.com
Female choreographers and their dancers possess the hearts and minds of audiences
Tue, May 22, 2018, 10:00 Seona Mac Reamoinn The Irish Times
Hard to be Soft – A Belfast Prayer
Oona Doherty, an exciting and unorthodox voice in dance, has created an eloquent interrogation of her native city of Belfast as it too fights for air in the suffocating legacy of sectarian and class strife. In the opening image, a smell of burning incense; two dark hoodies separated by a cardinal red hat. The striking design of Ciaran Bagnall’s set and lighting leaves the Abbey stage caged within a towering barred frame, its gates shutting in and out. It could be a safe space, a prison yard, an interface line.
We experience the underbelly of young male violence haunting her city on and off stage as David Holmes’s score and the soundscape underlines the community machismo, aggression and fear, laddish sub military culture where too many young men with time and no prospects seek street corner credibility, thrill and recognition in tribal conflict.
Doherty’s duet for John Scott and Bryan Quinn underlines that endemic helplessness in the gendered sectarianism. We watch the two dancers, maybe neighbours scarred by parallel experiences of loss or tragedy, tentatively move together outside the gates. Bare-chested and exposed, the men negotiate each other with hesitant moves, grappling, embracing and punching each other in familiar male bonding moves.
For Doherty, the future is perhaps in young women, as she invested in the verve of Ajendance company’s communal dance phase in this work. Yet, it is in Doherty’s own solo that all the complexity, hope and humanity is most evident. In a neon-lit space, her white robed figure hunches in one corner like a boxer claiming territory and hedging her bets. Suddenly, swiftly she takes control, covering all the angles. Her dance teems with agility and directness, androgynous and visceral. Curled or erect, defiant or hesitant, she emanates hardness and softness, tender and human. As the light fades and the space contracts, the words of her poem/prayer rise, entreating into the night.