Oona Doherty takes on Belfast’s hardest men

Part of her ‘Belfast prayer’ is a ‘big tough hug for all those dads, sons and brothers’

Performances normally begin with theatre lights dimmed or a curtain raised. Oona Doherty's Hope Hunt opens with the audience standing outside the theatre, waiting. Suddenly, a black Volkswagon Golf screeches to a halt outside the theatre, music booming from the open windows. Doherty springs out and bounds around confronting the audience; her movements are tightly-strung, aggressive, and with explosive energy bubbling just below the surface.

It’s probably the perfect introduction for Doherty, one of the most exciting talents to emerge in contemporary dance in recent years.

Doherty received the 2016 Dublin Tiger Fringe Award for Best Performance and Hope Hunt was nominated for Best Production. In 2017 it won the Total Theatre Award for Dance at Edinburgh Festival 2017 and Doherty was chosen as one of 20 promising emerging artists selected by the pan-European network Aerowaves. Her latest work Hard To Be Soft: A Belfast Prayer was co-commissioned by Prime Cut Productions, Belfast International Arts Festival, Dublin Dance Festival and the Abbey Theatre. The latter two names suggest that she will appear in the Abbey Theatre in next year's yet-to-be-announced Dublin Dance Festival.

Her choreography is utterly honest and viscerally intense, and underpinned by an unflinching belief in the power of dance to change people and achieve social justice. "She's fearless," says choreographer Emma Martin who worked with her on productions for United Fall and in Enda Walsh's play Arlington. "Oona commits every cell of her body to an idea. She dances with truth and a belief in the power of movement to stir the air."


Hope Hunt unpicked male identity, in particular the hyper-masculine physical posturing on street corners and the vulnerability that lies underneath.These men are created by failures within society, a theme expanded in Hard To Be Soft. Doherty reveals embedded behaviour borne of prejudice and neglect in Northern Irish society. And religion is at it's heart.

“Decisions about moral and human rights are being made in this country based on economic gain and a religious belief system,” she says. “Issues like homelessness, crime, racism, LGBQ rights, women’s rights, pro-choice and gay marriage need to be discussed in an open, empathetic and factual place.”

So why is Hard To Be Soft a "prayer to Belfast"? "The show uses what I think is the glamour of the church, like the godly and the divine. But it places it in the normal everyday.

“For me the church is like an old school theatre. It’s just that the original message of love has got a bit tainted and contorted along the way. I guess in my own way, I’m trying to own some of that back.”

Hard To Be Soft, with music by David Holmes, is divided into four sections, each a live performance of videos that have been released one-by-one over the past month on hardtobesoft.com. Lazarus & The Birds of Paradise developed from Hope Hunt and features Doherty, dressed in white, abstracting in slow motion the gestures and physical language of male aggression. Sugar Army turns its attention to female power and is danced by youth hip-hop group Ajendance.

"When I went to college in Derry, I found the women incredibly strong, almost intimidatingly strong," says Doherty. She references a story that, in the wake of the industrial revolution, "there were lots of fabric and shirt factories in Derry, so a lot of women were out at work and the men were at home. It is probably a generalisation, but maybe this had something to do with developing really strong women in Derry. In any case, Sugar Army is an ode to this female power."

Meat Kaleidoscope features John Scott and Bryan Quinn in a grappling shirtless duet alongside footage of the pair silently drinking beer on barstools.

"The men in my family, and many other families, aren't very touchy feely. For hard, working men, holding hands, hugs and affection was a sign of being 'gay' and 'gay' was not accepted. Even dancing was out to some degree. So Meat Kaleidoscope is a great big tough hug for all those dads, sons and brothers."

Doherty trained at London School Of Contemporary Dance, the University of Ulster and Laban in London, but she credits fellow professionals for her artistic identity. "These people have total co-ownership of my style because their effect on me lives on in everything I do. Guilherme Miotto basically built me. . . . My muscles, bones and mind were different after Guilherme."

She credits T.R.A.S.H. choreographer Krystel van Issum with changing how she sees dance, and more recently Emma Martin opening up to new worlds of creativity. “Emma knows how to feed a performer to give them the engine to riff on a concept.”

It’s generous kudos, but Doherty’s choreography already has a firm bedrock of ideals around the dancing body and how it can change society. “I think the way a dancer approaches their body, their emotions, their character and their choreography is a micro version of the way that person approaches their emotions and decisions in their life. This is just like the teachings of the tao and some zen and Buddhist teachings. To practice the understanding of the self and then in turn practice empathy and understanding in others, is, I hope, then the catalyst for social change.”

Hard To Be Soft: A Belfast Prayer is at The Mac from October 26 to 28. belfastinternationalartsfestival.com