From Northern Ireland, Dance as a ‘Physical Prayer’

“To push!” Choreographer Oona Doherty shouted as a group of young women ran in circles to the prompting beat of the drums. It was a chilly night at the Gibney ballroom near Union Square, with windows wide open to improve ventilation, a safety measure amid Omicron waves.

But the cold didn’t seem to bother the dancers, who were in the third hour of their sweaty rehearsal. Slowing down, they huddled together in a swarm, then unleashed sharp choruses, powerful confrontations, arms outstretched, stomping feet, and clapping hands on thighs.

“Good job, good job,” Doherty said when they finished. “You’re killing it!”

The dancers are learning one of the four short episodes that make up Doherty’s “Hard to Be Soft – A Belfast Prayer,” a piece inspired by the city where she grew up after a 30-year conflict called The Troubles. In this installment, for a group she calls the Sugar Army, she recruits performers (mostly teenagers) from wherever she tours – in New York, alumnus of Young dancer companya summer program for public high school students.

“That woman was a firecracker,” said 22-year-old Kiana King after her second rehearsal with Doherty. “She really made me want to do more, work more and want more from myself as an artist.”

A rising contemporary dance star in Europe, 36-year-old Doherty is still a newcomer to the American stage. She has brought a series to the Atlantic Ocean only once before,”Hope Hunt and Ascension to Lazarus“, A reckless solo act that opens with the main character falling out of the trunk of a car she performed at 92 Y . Street in March 2020.

Now that “Hard to Be Soft” has toured extensively since its premiere in 2017 – more recently the Venice Biennale, where Doherty won the Silver Lion in 2021 – is poised to premiere in the United States. Except for Covid-related disruptions, it will run January 13-23 at the Center for the Irish Arts in Manhattan, part of the inaugural season in the institution. new building.

Rachael Gilkey, the center’s director of programming and education, first noticed Doherty at the 2016 Dublin Fringe during the first performance of “Hope Hunt”. “She stood out immediately as a performer and choreographer that you just can’t take your eyes off of,” says Gilkey.

While Doherty’s latest work, “Lady Magma,” is an exploration of female sexuality, she has become known for her nuanced portrayal of a strong, class-masculine type. labor. In her two solos “Hard to be Soft,” she uses the style and mannerisms of men from her hometown’s streets – “basically, young men in bodysuits.” their sport,” she said in a video interview from Bangor, the seaside town near Belfast, where she now lives and works. (She uses a local church, rent-free, as her studio.)

Through the merciless motion that suggests, at times, a body fights itself, Doherty reveals the brokenness – and, though more elusive, an almost exalted lightness – underneath Aggressive poses of her characters. In the haunting soundtrack, by renowned Belfast DJ David Holmes, sacred choir-like sounds mingle with throbbing vocalists delivering narrative passages.

Seeing Doherty in this role, you can begin to confuse the artist with the archetypes she portrays; Her faith is complete, a form of faith. “I want it all to be a physical prayer,” she said. “It’s an attempt at healing.”

Born in North London to Northern Irish parents who had left amid the violence of the 1970s, Doherty returned with them to Belfast when she was about 10 years old. “I attended a very large Catholic girls’ school,” she said, “which stays with you for a bit, because girls can be vicious. Part of her memories of her classmates sparked her vision for the Sugar Army as a defiant young girl band.

Doherty struggled academically but discovered “one thing I’m good at,” she said, in her school’s contemporary dance program. Describing herself as a “dweeb” during her early teen years, she entered a more rebellious phase as an undergraduate student at the London School of Contemporary Dance. (She was evicted from her home after a year, what she now sums up as “a wobble” in her career.)

After completing degrees at the University of Ulster and the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, Doherty worked with Trash, a punk-influenced performance group in the Netherlands. Its directors, Kristel van Issum and Guilherme Miotto, “taught me everything I knew,” she said. But the work became too exhausting. “It sounds terrible, but it’s true – they enjoy seeing people in a state of exhaustion, so we’re all very thin and very tired.”

Returning to Northern Ireland after four years with Trash, Doherty shifted focus to her own choreography. (She also turned heads as Irish dance theater performer Emma Martin.) She locates the beginning of “Hard to Be Soft” during that adjustment period. “When you are away from home, and you come back, you see it differently,” she said.

When discussing her work, Doherty rarely refers to specific religious or political parties, but to a collective trauma, inherited through generations. Having gone through hardships, she said, people of her parents’ generation “have good reason to have so many walls.” With “Hard to Be Soft,” she seeks to “really understand the full spectrum of pain and dance it with love,” she says. “You are not an angry man on stage. It’s more than that. You’re playing the part of a hurt person who can’t stand the pain, so it breaks out in anger. “

In the show’s third episode, titled “The Meaty Kaleidoscope,” the two men lie on their sides and lock into a long and grappling embrace. “Are we hugging because we’re supporting each other or because we’re trying to strangle each other?” choreographer John Scott, who performed a duet with Sam Finnegan. “I think it can resonate with many different communities in terms of community divisions and family divisions.”

Doherty is also interested in how certain types of work affect the body and mind. Her father, uncles and grandfather all worked in the Harland and Wolff shipyards, where the Titanic was built – an anchor of the Belfast economy. “The kind of work you’re doing has built a certain character,” she said. “There is a certain weight in the amount of metal around you.”

Dance scholar Aoife McGrath, a senior lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, followed Doherty’s work and collaborated with her on an accompanying book “Lady Magma.” In “Hard to Be Soft,” says McGrath, she sees Doherty’s dual perspective as a Belfast insider and outsider, who has “shown knowledge of growing up in that setting” and a keen external eye.

“It’s the fascinating duality of the experience that I think helps the audience connect with her work,” she said, “even if they don’t know what it’s like to walk down the street in Belfast.”

However, despite, or perhaps because of, the work’s widespread resonance, Doherty developed some apprehensions about its reception. While touring France, she felt the audience reaction was, “’Oh my God, these poor people in Belfast,” she said. “They see it as something else.” It can come from a specific place, she adds, “but this is about kinetic trauma. This is also about you. “

She also expressed caution about the frequent use of the term “working class” in relation to her art. “I think at the time people thought I was really working class, so I have a right to talk about that,” she said. “I’m not rich, but I’m not—” She searched for the right words. “I own a MacBook Pro, and my whole job is job hopping! There’s something really classy about that. “

Under the pressure of a packed touring schedule, Doherty also came to question her ideas about dance and healing. “I used to have more faith in the healing powers that dance can do,” she said. “I kind of doubt it now. I don’t know if it’s just another business.”

However, her sensibility on stage and on set shows that her faith lives on. During the Sugar Army rehearsal, she listened to the dancers, who both performed their own short movement phrases to each other, while reflecting on the exercise. One dancer shared that she was very nervous, shaking but used that feeling to tell a story.

Doherty may be involved. “Every feeling and emotion you have,” she says, “it can be helpful if you use it as fuel for art.” From Northern Ireland, Dance as a ‘Physical Prayer’

Fry Electronics Team

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