Hard to be Soft: A Belfast Prayer (4 stars)

This article is from 2019

Hard to be Soft: A Belfast Prayer

credit: Ryan Buchanan

Oona Doherty inhabits the spirit of Belfast in this haunting dance prayer

Before the opening of this piece, it's hard to imagine what specific shape a dance prayer might take. But then the lights ever so gradually bring into focus a small glow, and three bodies materialise from nowhere on the stage; men in football scarves warming their hands round a bucket of fire, or the holy trinity poised before burning coals of frankincense.

Bodies and voices transubstantiate throughout the piece, performed by Oona Doherty and an ensemble cast. It harnesses the power of the collective spirit, messy, beautiful and violent, all taking place within Ciaran Bagnall's set, a three-sided box of tall white bars – both cage and cathedral.

Doherty performs solo in the first part, Lazarus and the Bird of Paradise. Dressed in loose white, her hair scraped back, she is an androgynous angel, a blank canvas for the souls of the people who inhabit her. As David Holmes' soundscape mashes up voices of mothers, hard men, old men, howls of pain, growls of menace, Doherty slips into the physicality of the voices, her teeth clenching, her shoulders sobbing, her fingers anxiously tapping in her pocket as she squares up. In between, her arms spread broad, or she tips backwards, pushed into inhuman form. It's the prayer's most powerful verse and it continues to linger long in the mind.

Sugar Army then pours onto the stage, a pack of young women in white jeans and coloured bomber jackets prowling in tribal formation. Occasionally one of them throws out a grenade of a gyration: their sexuality is weaponised and owned by them. But they also care for one another, congregating in discussion, fixing their jeans or hair for a beat. Never has the nickname for make-up – war paint – had more truth.

This show of cosmetic bravado gives way to Meat Kaleidoscope, which also hovers in limbo between tough and vulnerable. Two huge men inch towards each other, launching into a meaty embrace that is part wrestle, part caress, while Luc Trufarelli's fractured projections of their faces form a cosmic presence on the backdrop. It feels like an elevation of their souls that is nevertheless staunchly rooted in flesh. The bars of the cage open to let them walk away together, as if through the pearly gates.

In the final part, Helium, Doherty channels herself once again through incarnations, fluidly slipping from one to the next. Her hand is held to hurl an imaginary brick; swiftly she becomes Christ, exacting a blessing. She has the powerful ability to catch these wisps of images at exactly the precise angle and send them echoing through your mind, even as she climbs into another form. It's a soulful, sensual mash-up of rebirths, but it lacks the haunting power of the rest of the piece.

Lyceum, until 24 Aug, times vary, £10–25.

Hard to Be Soft: A Belfast Prayer

  • 4 stars

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…