From Northern Ireland, dance as ‘physical prayer’

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“To push!” shouted choreographer Oona Doherty, as a group of young women sprinted in a circle to the beat of a propelling drum. It was a chilly night at Gibney Dance Studios near Union Square, with the windows wide open to improve ventilation, a safety measure in the midst of the Omicron wave.

But the cold didn’t seem to bother the dancers, who were in the third hour of a sweaty rehearsal. Slowing down to walk, they huddled into a group, then uttered a harsh, confrontational unison sentence, full of kicks, kicks, and hands slapping their thighs.

“Well done, well done,” Doherty said when they finished. “You are killing him!” “

The dancers were learning one of the four short episodes that make up Doherty’s “Hard to be gentle – A prayer from Belfast,” a work inspired by the city where she grew up following the 30-year conflict known as the Troubles. In this section, for a group she calls the Sugar Army, she recruits performers (mostly teenagers) wherever she tours – in New York, alumni of the Company of Young Dancers, a summer program for public high school students.

“This woman is a firecracker,” said Kiana King, 22, after her second rehearsal with Doherty. “She really makes me want to do more, work more and want more of myself as an artist.”

A rising star of contemporary dance in Europe, Doherty, 36, is still a newcomer to the American stages. She has only brought a complete work to this side of the Atlantic once before, “Hope Hunt and the Ascension to Lazarus“, a daredevil solo that opens with its protagonist tumbling from the trunk of a car, which she performed at 92nd Street Y in March 2020.

Now, “Hard to Be Soft”, which has toured extensively since its premiere in 2017 – most recently at the Venice Biennale, where Doherty won the 2021 Silver Lion award – is set to make its debut at the United States. Barring any Covid-related disruptions, it will take place January 13-23 at the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan, as part of the inaugural season in the institution’s newly renovated building.

Rachael Gilkey, the centre’s director of programming and education, first noted Doherty at the 2016 Dublin Fringe Festival in a first performance of ‘Hope Hunt’. “She immediately stood out as a performer and choreographer that you just couldn’t take your eyes off of,” Gilkey said.

While Doherty’s latest work, “Lady Magma,” is a bacchanal exploration of female sexuality, she has become best known for her nuanced portrayals of a sort of hardened working-class masculinity. In two solos that hug the book “Hard to Be Soft”, she adopts the style and manners of the men on the streets of her hometown – “young guys, basically, in their tracksuits,” 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 a studio.)

Through a mercurial movement that suggests, at times, a body at war with itself, Doherty reveals a rupture – and, although more elusive, an almost exalted lightness – under the aggressive posture of its characters. In the haunting score, by famed Belfast DJ David Holmes, what sounds like sacred choral music mingles with practice vocals that deliver fragments of a narrative.

As you watch Doherty in this role, you might start to confuse the artist with the archetypes she embodies; his conviction is that complete, a form of faith. “I wanted everything to be a physical prayer,” she said. “It was an attempt at healing.”

Born in north London to parents from Northern Ireland who left amid the violence of the 1970s, Doherty returned with them to Belfast when she was around 10 years old. stay with you for a bit, because girls can be nasty. Memories of her classmates gave birth, in part, to her vision of the Sugar Army as a group of provocative young women.

Doherty struggled academically, but discovered “the one thing I was good at,” she said, in her school’s contemporary dance program. A self-proclaimed “dweeb” in her early teens, she entered a more rebellious phase as an undergraduate student at London Contemporary Dance School. (She was kicked out after a year, which she now describes as “a swing” in her career.)

After graduating from Ulster University and the Trinity Laban Conservatory 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 know,” she said. But the work has become too exhausting. “It sounds terrible, but it’s true – they were interested in seeing people in a state of exhaustion, so we were all very skinny and very tired.”

Returning to Northern Ireland after four years with Trash, Doherty focused on his own choreography. (She also turned heads as a performer with Irish dance-theater artist Emma Martin.) She places the beginnings of “Hard to Be Soft” in this period of readjustment. “When you’ve been away from home and come back you see it differently,” she said.

When discussing her work, Doherty rarely refers to specific religious or political affiliations, but rather a collective trauma, passed down from generation to generation. Having lived through the Troubles, she said, people of her parents’ generation “have a good reason for having a lot of walls.” With “Hard to Be Soft,” she sought “to really understand the full extent of pain and dance it with love,” she said. “You are not an angry man on stage. It’s more than that. You play the part of someone in pain, who can’t take so much pain, so it comes out angry.

In the third episode of the series, titled “Meat Kaleidoscope”, two men huddle together and kiss for a long time. “Are we hugging each other because we are supporting each other or because we are trying to strangle each other?” Said choreographer John Scott, who performs the duet with Sam Finnegan. “I think it can resonate in many different communities about the division within the community and the division within the family.”

Doherty was also interested in the impact of certain types of work on the body and the psyche. His father, uncles and grandfather all worked at the Harland and Wolff shipyard, where the Titanic was built, an anchor of Belfast’s economy. “Already, the type of work you do is building a certain character,” she said. “There is some weight in that amount of metal around you.”

Dance specialist Aoife McGrath, senior lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, has followed Doherty’s work and collaborated with her on a book that accompanies “Lady Magma”. In “Hard to Be Soft,” said McGrath, she sees Doherty’s dual perspective as an insider and outsider from Belfast, who has “the embodied knowledge of growing up in this landscape” and a keen outside eye.

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

Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the work’s broad resonance, Doherty developed some qualms about its reception. While touring France, she felt a reaction from the audience: “Oh my God, those poor people from Belfast,” she said. “They see him as the other.” It could be from a particular place, she added, “but it’s kinetic trauma. It’s about you too.

She also expresses her mistrust of the frequent use of the term “working class” in relation to her art. “I think then people assume that I am really working class, so I have a right to talk about it,” she said. “I’m not rich, but I’m not…” She searched for the right words. “I own a MacBook Pro and all my work is dancing!” There is something really classy about it.

Under the pressure of a busy touring schedule, Doherty also came to question his ideas about dancing and healing. “I used to have more confidence in the healing that dancing could provide,” she said. “Now I doubt it a bit. I don’t know if it’s just another matter.

Yet her sensitivity on stage and in the studio suggests that her faith persists. During the Sugar Army rehearsal, she listened to the dancers, who had just performed their own short movement phrases to each other, think about the exercise. One dancer shared that she had been nervous, shaking, but used the feeling to tell a story.

Doherty could understand. “Every feeling and emotion that you have,” she said, “it can be helpful if you use it as fuel for art.”

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