The England-born, North Ireland-bred choreographer and performer brings her latest piece about male physicality and repressed emotions to the EIF
It's the first year of high school and Oona Doherty is attending an after-school class at St Louise's Comprehensive in Belfast. A relative newcomer in town, having moved from North London a year earlier, Doherty isn't the most academic of students, but she's about to find her feet, in every possible way.
'The teacher put on music from the show Cats and told us to crawl around on the floor,' she recalls. 'I'd just been watching Big Cat Diary on TV, and when I was five or six living in London, I used to watch David Attenborough programmes and crawl on the floor pretending to be a lion. So when the teacher told us to improvise being a cat I thought "this is it, I'm made for it, I've been practising this for years"!'
Doherty laughs at the recollection of that serendipitous moment, but also cites it as the day she knew what to do with her life. Largely because of the praise she received. 'When you're 11, it doesn't matter what it is, if an adult says to you "you're brilliant at that" it gives you confidence. And as soon as I did that first dance class I thought that's it, and I never wobbled once. I never thought that I was going to try and do anything else, ever.'
Despite protestations from school about the need to attend university in case she 'didn't make it as a dancer', Doherty says she 'just ignored them: I had no doubt that I would get into dance school.' And get in she did, graduating from the London School of Contemporary Dance and then Laban, before making a name for herself as a dancer you simply can't take your eyes off.
credit: Luca Truffarelli
Those who saw Doherty's 2017 Edinburgh Fringe show, Hope Hunt & The Ascension into Lazarus, will never forget the first moment she came into view. Gathered outside Dance Base on the Grassmarket, we watched as a car pulled up, music blaring from the back seat. Opening the boot, the male driver stepped aside to reveal Doherty tumbling out onto the hard pavement. Her sinuous movement, wrapped in a shiny tracksuit, gold chain and androgynous slicked-back hair, captured us in a way few performers can.
Two years later, Doherty is back in Edinburgh, only this time it's at the invitation of the International Festival. Hard to Be Soft: A Belfast Prayer features the second half of that Fringe solo (The Ascension into Lazarus) in which Doherty plays a young Belfast lad who steals a car, dies and wakes up in limbo. Three other new 'episodes' follow, as if the young man's life is flashing before his eyes: The Sugar Army, danced by a crew of Edinburgh-based young female hip-hop dancers, Meat Kaleidoscope, a duet for two men, and Helium, a closing solo performed by Doherty.
The work as a whole, explains Doherty, is born out of a desire to create a 'kinetic empathy' between performers and the audience. 'We're all human, we're all the same, we all struggle with what we're feeling,' she says. 'And I think that's the root of the show. Yeah, it's set in that working-class Belfast context, but to really understand your feelings, and be able to communicate that to the people around you, is hard. Feelings are really difficult, it doesn't matter who you are or where you're from.'
Moving to Belfast from London at the age of ten, being told by her father to 'keep your voice down' because of her English accent, and watching her brother have his school locker daubed with 'Brits get out' have all fed into the show in one way or another. And by including moments of choral music and religious symbolism, Doherty says she's trying to 're-own religion', having become 'a bit pissed off that religion is still affecting decision-making and laws in Northern Ireland'.
But one episode, in particular, of Hard to Be Soft – a duet between a father and son – was born out of a very personal family situation. 'I created Meat Kaleidoscope because my dad and brother stopped talking to each other about five years ago. They're both big fellas body-wise; the whole Doherty side of my family were merchant sailors working in the shipyards for generations, big chunky men, big Belfast men. And I don't know if it's to do with your health, your body type or the culture, but there's an actual posture within the spine when you're a big, tall, heavy-set man, that makes you walk differently. So that's one thing in the duet, the type of dander a man like that has, the weight on their body. And then the whole cultural thing of the shipyards, those hard men.'
When Hard to Be Soft opened in Belfast, Doherty sent her brother and father tickets for the show, not sitting them next to one another but hopeful the two men might speak in the bar afterwards. They didn't. But Doherty's uncle offered her some words of comfort. 'He said to me "open any door in any street in Belfast and you'll find similar stories". Families: there's always something going on, and basically everybody needs to shut up and have a hug.'
Sage words with a universal relevance, but Doherty is particularly keen that her work speaks to both her hometown and the one she'll visit this August. 'I'm really glad we're bringing the show to the festival. What Hard to Be Soft is about should be seen in Edinburgh, because there's something similar about the people of Northern Ireland and Scotland. They'll get it on a deep level.'
Hard to Be Soft: A Belfast Prayer, Royal Lyceum Theatre, 21, 24 Aug, 8pm, 22 & 23 Aug, 4pm.
Aggression. Sensuality. Vulnerability. Hard to Be Soft is a dance prayer about — and for — the people of Belfast. Created by Belfast-based choreographer and dancer Oona Doherty, with driving music by DJ David Holmes (Killing Eve, Ocean’s Eleven, Hunger), Hard to Be Soft looks behind the masks of violence and machismo to…