From Northern Ireland, Dance as a ‘Physical Prayer’

“Push!” the choreographer Oona Doherty shouted, as a group of young women sprinted in a circle to a propulsive drumbeat. It was a chilly night at the Gibney dance studios near Union Square, with the windows wide open to improve ventilation, a safety measure in the midst of the Omicron wave.

But the cold didn’t seem to bother the dancers, who were in the third hour of a sweaty rehearsal. Slowing to a walk, they tightened into a huddle, then unleashed a sharp, confrontational unison phrase, full of thwacking arms, stomping feet and hands slapping their thighs.

“Well done, well done,” Doherty said when they had finished. “You’re killing it!”

The dancers were learning one of the four short episodes that make up Doherty’s “Hard to Be Soft — A Belfast Prayer,” a work inspired by the city where she grew up in the wake of the 30-year conflict known as the Troubles. In this section, for a group she calls the Sugar Army, she recruits performers (mostly teens) from wherever she tours — in New York, alumni of the Young Dancemakers Company, a summer program for public high-school students.

The Belfast version of the Sugar Army. (In New York, the participants are alumni of the Young Dancemakers Company.)Credit…Luca Truffarelli

“That woman is a firecracker,” Kiana King, 22, said after her second rehearsal with Doherty. “She genuinely makes me want to do more, and work more, and want more from myself as an artist.”

A rising star of contemporary dance in Europe, Doherty, 36, is still a newcomer to American stages. She has brought a full-length work to this side of the Atlantic only once before, “Hope Hunt and the Ascension into Lazarus,” a daredevil solo that opens with its protagonist tumbling out of the trunk of a car, which she performed at the 92nd Street Y in March 2020.

Now “Hard to Be Soft” which has toured extensively since its premiere in 2017 — recently to the Venice Biennale, where Doherty won the 2021 Silver Lion award — is poised to make its United States debut. Barring Covid-related disruptions, it will run Jan. 13-23 at the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan, part of the inaugural season in the institution’s newly renovated building.

Rachael Gilkey, the center’s director of programming and education, first took note of Doherty at the 2016 Dublin Fringe Festival in an early performance of “Hope Hunt.” “She stood out immediately as a performer and a choreographer who you just couldn’t take your eyes off of,” Gilkey said.

Doherty, performing in “Hard to Be Soft” in 2017.Credit…Luca Truffarelli

While Doherty’s latest work, “Lady Magma,” is a bacchanalian exploration of female sexuality, she has become best known for her nuanced portrayals of a kind of toughened, working-class masculinity. In two solos that bookend “Hard to Be Soft,” she adopts the style and mannerisms of men from the streets of her home city — “young lads, basically, in their track suits,” she said in a video interview from Bangor, the seaside town near Belfast where she now lives and works. (She uses a local church, rent-free, as her studio.)

Through mercurial movement that suggests, at times, a body at war with itself, Doherty unveils a brokenness — and, though more elusive, an almost exalted levity — beneath her characters’ aggressive posturing. In the haunting score, by the acclaimed Belfast DJ David Holmes, what sounds like sacred choral music mingles with sparring voices that offer fragments of a narrative.

Watching Doherty in this role, you might begin to conflate the artist with the archetypes she embodies; her conviction is that complete, a form of faith. “I wanted it all to be a physical prayer,” she said. “It was an attempt at healing.”

Born in North London to parents from Northern Ireland, who left amid the violence of the 1970s, Doherty returned with them to Belfast when she was about 10. “I went to a very big Catholic all-girls school,” she said, “which stays with you a bit, because girls can be vicious.” Memories of her classmates gave rise, in part, to her vision for the Sugar Army as a defiant band of young women.

Doherty in Ireland.Credit…Ellius Grace for The New York Times
Credit…Ellius Grace for The New York Times

Doherty struggled academically but discovered “the one thing I was good at,” she said, in her school’s contemporary dance program. A self-described “dweeb” in her early teen years, she entered a more rebellious phase as an undergraduate at the London Contemporary Dance School. (She got kicked out after a year, what she now sums up as “a wobble” in her career.)

After completing degrees at Ulster University and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, Doherty worked with T.r.a.s.h., a punk-influenced performance group in the Netherlands. Its directors, Kristel van Issum and Guilherme Miotto, “taught me everything I know,” she said. But the work became too depleting. “It sounds terrible, but it’s true — they were interested in seeing people in a state of exhaustion, so we were all very thin and very tired.”

Returning to Northern Ireland after four years with T.r.a.s.h., Doherty shifted her focus to her own choreography. (She also turned heads as a performer with the Irish dance-theater artist Emma Martin.) She locates the beginnings of “Hard to Be Soft” in that period of readjustment. “When you’ve been away from home, and you come back, you see it differently,” she said.

When discussing her work, Doherty rarely refers to specific religious or political affiliations, but rather to a collective trauma, passed down through generations. Having lived through the Troubles, she said, people of her parents’ generation “have a good reason to have a lot of walls up.” With “Hard to Be Soft,” she sought “to really understand the full scope of pain, and to dance it with love,” she said. “You’re not being an angry man onstage. It’s more than that. You’re playing someone in pain, who can’t handle that amount of pain, so it comes out in anger.”

John Scott and Brian Quinn in “Hard to Be Soft.”Credit…Luca Truffarelli

In the show’s third episode, titled “Meat Kaleidoscope,” two men lumber toward each other and lock into a long, grappling embrace. “Are we hugging because we’re supporting each other or because we’re trying to strangle each other?” said the choreographer John Scott, who performs the duet with Sam Finnegan. “I think it can resonate with a lot of different communities about division within community and division within family.”

Doherty was also interested in how certain types of labor impact the body and psyche. Her father, uncles and grandfather all worked in the Harland and Wolff shipyard, where the Titanic was built — an anchor of Belfast’s economy. “Already the type of work you’re doing builds a certain character,” she said. “There’s a certain weight in that amount of metal around you.”

The dance scholar Aoife McGrath, a senior lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, has followed Doherty’s work and collaborated with her on a book that accompanies “Lady Magma.” In “Hard to Be Soft,” McGrath said, she sees Doherty’s dual perspective as a Belfast insider and outsider, who has “the embodied knowledge of growing up in that landscape” and a keen outside eye.

“It’s that fascinating duality of experience that I think helps audiences connect to her work,” she said, “even if they have no knowledge of what it’s like to walk down the street in Belfast.”

Doherty is interested in how certain types of labor impact the body and psyche. “The type of work you’re doing builds a certain character,” she said.Credit…Ellius Grace for The New York Times

Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the work’s broad resonance, Doherty has developed some qualms about its reception. While touring France, she sensed a reaction from audiences of, “‘Oh my God, these poor people in Belfast,’” she said. “They look at it as the other.” It might spring from a particular place, she added, “but this is about kinetic trauma. This is about you, as well.”

She expresses wariness, too, about the frequent use of the term “working class” in relation to her art. “I think then people presume that I’m really working class, so I have a right to talk about it,” she said. “I’m not rich, but I’m not —” She searched for the right words. “I own a MacBook Pro, and my whole job is dancing! There’s something really posh about that.”

Under the pressures of a busy touring schedule, Doherty has also come to question her ideas about dance and healing. “I used to have more faith in the healing that dance could do,” she said. “Now I doubt it a little bit. I don’t know if it’s just another business.”

Yet her sensitivity onstage and in the studio suggests that her faith persists. During the Sugar Army rehearsal, she listened as the dancers, who had just performed their own short movement phrases for one another, reflected on the exercise. One dancer shared that she had been nervous, trembling, but used that sensation to tell a story.

Doherty could relate. “Every feeling and emotion you have,” she said, “it can be useful if you use it as fuel for the art.”

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