As her groundbreaking show Hard to Be Soft opens in London after a global tour, choreographer Oona Doherty tells Natasha Tripney how she celebrates female strength and sexuality through dance, the varied forms of movement that inspire her work from yoga to hip hop, and why a grimace is beautiful
Belfast-based choreographer Oona Doherty is one of the dance world’s fastest-rising talents.
The show with which she really made her mark, Hard to Be Soft: A Belfast Prayer, plays in London today (Friday, October 11) as part of Dance Umbrella, having toured internationally and cemented her reputation. Made with Northern Ireland’s Prime Cut Productions as part of its Reveal artist development programme, dance critic Anna Winter, writing in the Guardian, called it “a major achievement”.
Doherty, a dancer as well as choreographer, packs a lot of things into her work, fusing different styles – everything from ballet to hip hop, Butoh to Krump – in order to explore the masculinity of Belfast men and the strength of its women, the psychological legacy of conflict in Northern Ireland, and what she describes as the “muscle memory” of trauma.
Born in London, her family moved to Belfast when she was 10. After completing degrees at Ulster University and Laban, Doherty spent a period working with experimental Dutch company Trash, before moving back to Northern Ireland.
Belfast, its men and its women, are the inspiration for Hard to Be Soft, a structurally intricate work that consists of four sections – “like the stages of the cross” – set to a score by musician and composer David Holmes.
Doherty’s inspirations are numerous and extend beyond the dance world. Though she mentions Lloyd Newson’s work in relation to her own, she cites Brand New Ancients by the poet and performer Kate Tempest as one of the things she drew upon when creating the piece. Doherty was particularly taken with the way Tempest could make something epic out of something ordinary, or as she puts it, turn “the dole queue into Greek gods”.
Doherty herself performs in the first section of Hard to Be Soft, called Lazarus and the Birds of Paradise. She stands on stage alone in a white tracksuit syncing her movements to audio clips from a documentary about Belfast youth called The Wee Bastards.
Elsewhere in the piece, in a sequence entitled Sugar Army, she works with a local female dance group at each location in which it’s performed. She sets out to teach the girls to embrace their potential for power and “to trust they can be beautiful even if they pull a funny face”.
She says she’s noticed on the streets of Belfast that there’s a trend for younger girls to wear a lot of make-up. “It’s like war paint.” This led her to think of the Maori haka and other tribal ritual dances. She wanted to “take these girls and give them [their own] spiritual, ritual dance”.
In the dance world, she says, there’s a tendency to concentrate on everything from the neck down; she wants to let these girls know they can be beautiful even if they grimace, even if they bare their teeth, to let them see that beauty is more than just a perfect, glamorous Instagram smile. “We show our teeth and gums. We allow the muscles of the face to be part of the movement and the emotion.”
Her work also addresses the taboo of tenderness between men in Northern Ireland. To this end she’s choreographed a scene in which two men embrace each other on stage. “They’re trying to communicate and love each other, but they’re full of guilt and pain,” she says, before adding: “I just think it’s good to see two big lads giving each other a hug.”
When she developed it, Doherty was thinking of working-class men from her father’s generation. She was struck by how she’d seem older men in other parts of the world holding hands with their friends. “It made me realise how men from Belfast wouldn’t publicly touch each other.”
“Her stage presence is thoroughly magnetic,” says Winter of Doherty’s work, “but she also gives the stage over to non-dancers and young dancers.” Her work is “thoughtful but never pretentious, humane but not sentimental”.
Doherty’s 2016 show Hope Hunt and the Ascension into Lazarus – which will be performed at the Yard this month, also as part of Dance Umbrella – was originally choreographed for a male performer but she ended up performing it herself, in a black tracksuit this time.
The piece is full of masculine swagger; she thumbs at her nose, one hand massaging the crotch of her trousers, in the guise of a young man harassing passing women. She flings her body to the ground, twitches and pivots. She deploys her voice, repeating an expletive until it’s stretched out of shape, transforming it into a football chant. She says she views Hard to Be Soft as a kind of sequel to Hope Hunt. “It picks up where that piece ends.”
Ideas surrounding masculinity and femininity ripple through her work, how men often use gestures of aggression to conceal vulnerability, how young women can be “fragile and strong at the same time, bitchy and angelic at the same time”.
Doherty is increasingly in demand. Her new piece Lady Magma: The Birth of a Cult uses a company of female dancers to create a celebration of female strength and sexuality. It’s the first she isn’t performing in herself. It will close this year’s Belfast International Arts Festival having premiered in France earlier this year. Drawing upon yoga nidra techniques – attaining a state between sleep and wakefulness – she describes it as kind of ritual in which “we offer something to the night”.
Though her international reputation is on the rise, Hard to Be Soft is rooted in Belfast. Can you encapsulate a city on stage? Doherty’s not convinced you can. “You can only be honest to your gut and memories,” she says. “If you have a real relationship with a place, that will shine through.”
Hard to Be Soft: A Belfast Prayer is at Southbank Centre on October 11. Hope Hunt and the Ascension into Lazarus is at the Yard, London, October 14–16 as part of Dance Umbrella 2019. Lady Magma is at the MAC, Belfast from October 31-November 2