Ahead of this year’s Dublin Dance Festival, we speak to one of Ireland’s most fascinating and in-demand choreographers, Oona Doherty. Her work delves deep into the psyche of her native Belfast, probing the possibilities of dance as a healing force.
“I get quite bad paranoia sometimes – Blind Boy’s podcast has really saved me this winter.”
I’m talking to Oona Doherty, the Belfast-bred choreographer and dancer known for her tough, street style of contemporary dance. The statement is typical of Doherty’s disarmingly open manner. It’s a quality that finds its way into her performance too – she’s resolutely open to her audience at all times, giving them all she’s got. Doherty is a one-woman generator of energy – the first time I wrote about her back in 2014, I described her as a dynamo. That was for her performance in Emma Martin’s Tundra, the show that opened the Dublin Dance Festival that year. In the four years since, Doherty has become known and in-demand as a choreographer in her own right. This year, both her full-length works, Hope Hunt and Hard To Be Soft – A Belfast Prayer, are touring Europe simultaneously. She’s already under commission for 2019.
There’s fury, power and defiance in her physicality. Doherty’s movement vocabulary and aesthetic was partly forged in the Netherlands-based punk dance company t.r.a.s.h., and partly by the energy on the streets of her native Belfast. ‘Energy’ is a repeated word when speaking to the choreographer – she thinks of the world in energetic terms. She handles language from wildly different vocabularies easily, drawing on Buddhism, Northern Irish street slang and dance lingo, creating a mongrel vocabulary of her own. It reflects how Doherty wears her influences lightly, magpie-ing together different elements from music, art and other cultures. A recent commission for Maiden Voyage dance company in Belfast resulted in the creation of what she describes as a ‘slow motion perfume ad crossed with Stargate’, with Justin Bieber’s smash hit ‘Sorry’ slowed to the point of being unrecognisable and played over the movement.
What the Northern Irish choreographer has become most known for is her portrayal of the street swagger and underlying vulnerability of young men in her home city. And for her punishing habit of slapping her body into the ground. She has described herself as ‘addicted to falling’. She attributes this to her days with t.r.a.s.h., a company that embraced fever pitches of expression, with wild, vibrating movement, smeared make-up and extreme facial contortions. A photographer once described Doherty as ‘Buster Keaton on speed’. It’s true there’s more of the vaudeville about her performances than much contemporary dance, which favours neutrality in facial expression.
We’ve asked her to bring us somewhere good to shoot in the city. She’s found a chip shop with some ‘sexy yellow chairs’ that she thinks could be a good backdrop (she mentions British photographer Martin Parr, lover of the chipper photo, as an influence on her work). We go in and order three cups of tea. I line sugar packets up on the formica table top while Doherty talks. She can talk rings around you, her wording and anecdotes by turns surprising, hilarious and frequently spiritual.
“We moved back to Belfast from London in ’92, when I was 10. I remember being in a black taxi going to the swimmers and it was a really hot summer and I was sticking to the seat. Black taxis worked like buses then. And going past the back of the Falls and on Black Mountain they’d made out a big YES with white stones. I didn’t really understand what it was, but I knew it was for the peace process.”
Doherty’s work is heavily influenced by the context of Belfast, by the trauma the place and its people have experienced, but she doesn’t engage with the politics directly. She’s more interested in the interpersonal, familial and social, connections that underpin the politics. She talks about her first visit to a 12th of July bonfire.
“I wanted to prove to my Dad and to myself that it was just teenagers having a really great party. And that he should chill out about it – don’t take that away from them. So I went and it mainly was just teenagers and because the heat from the bonfire is so intense, you can wear a bellytop and you can have a carry-out [takeaway booze] and you can have your first boyfriend. And it’s a real Dionysius, beautiful event in some ways – there’s a little van with a DJ in it and your granny’s having a carry-out too, everyone’s having a carry-out. But they did chant, they did burn effigies, so in a sense my dad was right to be upset. There’s still an underlying aggression in the ritual, which isn’t right.”
This sensitivity for the personal and human experience is what drives her work. Her first full-length piece as a choreographer, Hope Hunt, is an act of beatification. She takes the body language of angry young men she sees on the streets of Belfast, a complex vocabulary of tension and aggression, and splices it with imagery inspired by Caravaggio to render it divine. Influences that came in at the start of creating Hope Hunt were the photography of Wolfgang Tillmans and Martin Parr, as well as Easterhouse, the sprawling and notorious housing estate in Glasgow, built in the 1970s. She refers to the young men who so fascinate her as ‘hunters’, though what they’re hunting isn’t mentioned. Maybe it’s hope, as the title suggests. The piece starts with the audience on the street outside the theatre as a car pulls up blaring tunes, the boot popping open to reveal Doherty. Blurring the boundary between theatre and street was important for the artist.
“At the same time as doing Hope Hunt, I got a house in Bangor. So I was becoming more aware of where I was in the class hierarchy. It was important for me to bring the car in for the concept of the show – that it’s about people who are not inside the theatre. The fact I’m going around theatres in Europe doing a dance show is the furthest thing from the idea of the show itself. I just want to make sure I’m not glamourising poverty, or using stereotypes of a class of people to make my bourgeois life. I don’t think I am, but you have to keep that in your head because you can easily flip into having flat whites and talking about concepts.”
It’s hard to escape the bourgeois associations with theatre and dance, something that often jars when you’re making what’s termed ‘socially engaged’ work. As part of the research for Hope Hunt, Doherty visited Hydebank prison to perform for the prisoners. She wanted to show the piece to them because it is about them and, as she puts it, ‘Who am I to be dancing about ya?’ She describes the experience as the ‘best gig’ she’s ever done.
“I said a wee speech at the end, basically for my own guilt for being middle class. I talked to them about the healing properties of salt and how it’s good to sweat, how it can balance out your hormones and your energy when you’ve got stuff going on. Balance out the drugs and the OCD. And they were all really positive and signed up for the workshop and I was like ‘This is amazing, this is my path’. And then I showed up on the first day and there’s like two people there and the two people do a bit of dancing but really they just want to touch your arse. Because you’re a young girl, and you’ve no community outreach training. The thing with that type of work is you need a year or two and to be able to show up and be there the next day and the next day, even if they aren’t. You need to be dependable for them.”
Sine then, Doherty has come to think that the best use of her talent on a ‘community outreach’ level might be to teach what she herself feels when she performs, what she calls ‘dance in catharsis’.
“The thing I’m trying to do is to show how when I’m dancing, I use all the stuff from my life, and not completely cognitively, to fuel emotion in the movement. I feel like I’m doing it as a catharsis thing. How do I show people what happens in my head when I’m dancing? Because it makes me happier. The positive and the negative energy is channelled in time for one moment as a simple action and you feel a bit cleared. You do something on the energy.”
Dance for Doherty is not purely aesthetic, something nice to look at. It is spiritual, ritual and rite, with the potential to heal. She believes in the possibility of kinetic transferrence between dancer and audience. She says that she sees people in the audience involuntarily echoing her facial expressions when she’s performing. She believes that those watching her are processing what they see through their own physical experience, their physical history.
“When I do the Hope Hunt, I can see people in the audience mirroring what they’re watching. I try to provide that energy by using all the resources I have, so any pain or pleasure I can muster, and channel it through the choreography, and they receive that as an understanding on a physical, kinetic level. I hope that through their nervous system history, they decide what it’s about. They think they know what I’m doing, but it’s based on what their body understands of that physical movement.”
Her second major work as a choreographer, Hard to be Soft – A Belfast Prayer is a four-part ‘hymn to Belfast’ that, like Hope Hunt, marries the language of the streets with divinity. Part 3, ‘Meat Kaleidoscope’, features two men (choreographer John Scott and actor Bryan Quinn), topless, grappling and sweating. This section was inspired by the troubled relationship between Doherty’s brother and father. She’d hoped to encourage a reconciliation between the two with the piece – her ultimate attempt to bring her belief in kinetic transferrence into effect. It didn’t work though, she says, and now she cries during her own part in the show for the loss of this possibility, but also with the knowledge that the magic might work for someone else.
In the work she’s made so far, Doherty’s been navigating vulnerability through a lens of masculine toughness, through punishing her own body in performance, relentlessly falling and getting up again. The 2019 commission, titled Lady Magma (with the tagline ‘This is a birth of a cult’) is a departure from this in some ways. She’ll be working with an all-female cast and is intent on finding a way of working with the same ideas as in her previous work, but with more softness. She’s wary of becoming known as the dancer who deals only with stymied masculinity, and whose go-to move is to pummel the floor with her body.
“I’ve been working for ages on trying to provide love by presenting someone processing struggle. Which has resulted in the tough thing. So people have hired me for the struggle. I was hired for Arlington [Enda Walsh’s 2016 play] because they knew I could do the struggle. I’ve had to be careful with that because otherwise I would undermine the struggle by providing it to too many people, in different contexts. You wouldn’t believe it any more. So with Lady Magma, I’m trying to not lose any of the extremity of the relationship between pain and pleasure, but trying to get it to have a more 1970s, electric guitar, opium vibe.”
Among the influences for the new show are John Fruscianti’s epic, building guitar track Before the Beginning, Sufism and witchcraft. She gleefully relates how she’d been imagining a dramatic entrance by an electric guitarist coming down the back wall of the stage on a stairlift, but was told she couldn’t practically tour something like that. The picture she paints of the new work is both mystical and absurd, a far cry from the floor-thumping, hyper-masculine, street-toned aspect of her first two shows. It sounds like maybe the falling is starting to wear thin, and it’s time for a new direction, a shift in consciousness.
“The way you dance and the way you treat your body has a direct effect on the way you treat people and the world. And if I want to get a dog and just chill out and have a dinner with my boyfriend, maybe I have to not hit the ground so many times. Maybe. But also, maybe it’s something like by trying to not do the habit, you’ll realise why you do it. And what kind of beast you really are.”
Hard To Be Soft – A Belfast Prayer will show at the Abbey Theatre as part of Dublin Dance Festival, on May 18 and 19.
For more information and to book tickets, visit dublindancefestival.ie
Words: Rachel Donnelly
Images: Steve O’Connor