Rituals of Cleansing and Hope

Starting August 1 this article will also be part of the print version of Magazin im August, available for free at all festival venues.

The choreographer Oona Doherty is reflecting on social issues and violence in her hometown Belfast, but her performances are also testimonials of hope and power. A portrait.

Text: Rachel Donnelly

“Love is so powerful that it can really turn on itself, when it’s not able to come out in the right way.” - Oona Doherty

In her essay ”We Dance What We Remember: Memory in Perceiving and Performing Contemporary Dance”, Catherine J. Stevens lists three of the main forms dance can take: “dance as ritual, as social event, or as art.” Contemporary dance usually falls into the category of art, as distinct from ritual. Taken as art, dance is an object for contemplation from a distance. The movement is received through the eyes, and then processed in the brain, while our bodies stay unmoved in our seats as we watch; but of course this is not true. Our heartbeat, our skin, our breathing, our guts are all responding to what we’re seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling in the room. The information we’re taking in is multi-form and received by different parts of our bodies, which work in tandem to create our overall emotional state. It begs the question: what is watching live dance doing to the bodies in an audience?

At 33, Belfast-based choreographer and performer Oona Doherty has already forged a unique dance language and value system that takes account of this question. Her training included stints at the Place in London, the University of Ulster, Echo Dance Theatre Company in Derry in Northern Ireland and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London – as well as discos in London, Sardinia and Ibiza. For Doherty, both the dances she performs for other choreographer and the pieces she choreographs herself are rituals of cleansing and hope, with much of her early work focusing on the troubled heart of her home city. Doherty moved to Belfast from London in 1992 at the age of ten, before the peace process, when the city was still turbulent with violence and fear. Landing into such a different energy and environment made a deep impression on the artist.

“I remember the first day playing on the street in Belfast – I’d never played on the street before in London. I probably had a Minnie Mouse jumper on and some kind of pyjama trousers, and I went out in the street with my notebook to write stories or poems. But then I became friends with some of the local kids and I changed – I learned I had to get an Umbro tracksuit and learn how to climb coal sheds. And the church there wasn’t like the church in England. It was full of grief and tragedy."

Doherty’s performance “Hard to be Soft” came out of a wish to heal something of the trauma being held in the collective Belfast body. She sees this trauma in the body language of young men on the streets of the city. Her first full-length work, “Hope Hunt”(2014), channels exactly this energy and was the work that gained the choreographer recognition. It’s a solo work that begins outside the theatre with Doherty emerging from the boot of a car as heavy beats thump from the vehicle’s sound system.  The part of the performance that happens in the theatre is soundtracked by the docudrama “Wee Bastards”, a short film piece that presents life on Belfast’s ‘mean streets’. For Doherty, it was important to have the performance begin outside as it’s essentially about “people who aren’t in the theatre”.

The process of creating “Hope Hunt”began with an image first and foremost: “It must have come from me looking at images by Wolfgang Tillmans and Andrew Parr, a British photographer who would photograph people in chip shops. And I was looking at Easter House, a massive housing estate built in Glasgow in the 70s. So that ‘hunter’, those boys, came out of that aesthetic. And then it built up into the ‘Hope Hunt’. And at the same time as me doing the ‘Hope Hunt’, I also got this house in Bangor, so I was becoming more aware of where I was in the class hierarchy. So I think when I made the show then 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 development from “Hope Hunt” to “Hard to be Soft” is clear – the ‘hunter’ is still strongly present in the second work, and we’re still in Belfast. For Doherty, there’s a narrative connection too: “First the hunter dies, and he wakes up in limbo, and ‘Hard to be Soft’ is his life flashing before his eyes, until episode 4 [‘Helium’] where he finally transcends, and he lets go, and he goes either to nirvana or he comes back to life again. That’s the end of ‘Hard to be Soft’.”

Her hope is to be able to clear negative energy through movement, and through sweat. Each of the four chapters in “Hard to be Soft” introduces a different element of the frenetic and friable energy of Belfast, from both the feminine and masculine sides. The work is book-ended by masculine solos (the first, ”Lazarus and the Birds of Paradise”, performed by Doherty herself, the last, ”Helium”, by the Northern Irish dancer Ryan O’Neill). Both solos have the quality of a rite, an invocation, as though the performers are trying to conjure something from a realm beyond the present. In between these solos, there is a duet between two men (“Meat Kaleidoscope”) and an ensemble piece for a group of young girls (“Sugar Army”).

”Meat Kaleidoscope” was inspired by the troubled relationship between Doherty’s brother and father, and more generally by silent and stymied masculine relationships. The title of the chapter points to the choreographer’s belief that you can exorcise toxic energy through the meat of the body. She describes the opening of her latest work, “Lady Magma”, which premiered in Paris in April this year: “When ‘Lady Magma’ starts, there’s a choreographic section called ‘The Ancestors’, where, through listening to the meat in your body, you evaporate the energy of your ancestors that’s trapped in your kinesphere or in the planet’s kinesphere.”

Apart from her portrayal of the street swagger and underlying vulnerability of young men in her home city, what Doherty is most known for is her distinctive movement quality. There’s power, fury and defiance in her physicality, and she regularly slaps her body hard into the ground. She has described herself as ‘addicted to falling’, a tendency she attributes to her days with the Dutch company t.r.a.s.h., who 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’.

I spoke to Doherty last year while her latest work “Lady Magma” was still in development, and she appeared to be entering new territory. “Lady Magma” features an all-female cast, and Doherty was keen to explore a different movement quality in the work – something less extreme, less physically harsh. The starting point for the piece was female sexuality and the rhythm of female orgasms. Reflecting on the piece again at the time of this interview (April 2019), just weeks before its premiere, she doesn’t see it as really that distinct from her earlier works, in the sense that she’s still striving to achieve performance as a positive ritual.

“With ‘Lady Magma’ I’m interested in how to use choreography for healing, and I’ve realised the same applies for ‘Hard to be Soft’. Yesterday, in my last rehearsal with the Paris Sugar Army, I taught them the beginning section of ‘Magma’, and I thought they’d be too young to deal with that perineum spiritual work. But actually I gave it to the kids and they all cried and laughed and understood what it was. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional dancer or not, your body is your body … treat everyone the same I guess. The idea of clearing energy, and the ritual, positive element of ‘Hard to be Soft’… well ‘Magma’ came from ‘Hard to be Soft’. I’m just going deeper into that ritual – how do you make a performance a spiritual act? I want to feel the choreography is in service for something.”

As she continues on her European tours, with “Hope Hunt” and “Hard to be Soft”on the go simultaneously, and “Lady Magma” about to begin, Doherty has questions about what the choreography is in service of. She hopes it can be cathartic for the audience, but worries about the benefit of the ritual only extending to the dancers. It’s an ongoing experiment as she continues to define her practice for herself, and she feels moments of failure – the thing that’s not permitted on the touring show circuit, but that’s essential for an artist’s development. At the centre of all of her work is the desire to make the movement mean something, and to have some positive effect beyond the moment of performance.

“I’m still working on how you instill sincerity in performance. How do you make the choreography about you, which is where this clearing energetic work comes in – how do you make it mean something for you? Because that’s the only interesting thing to look at – who cares where your arms and legs are?”

Oona Doherty

Hard To Be Soft - A Belfast Prayer

17.8., 19:00 | 18.8, 17:00 | HAU1
German premiere