Dancer stages her ‘physical prayer’ to Belfast

Dancer Oona Doherty
Dancer Oona Doherty

Belfast-based choreographer and dancer, Oona Doherty, presents her ‘physical prayer for Belfast’ with her new show Hard to Be Soft which is at the MAC October 26-28.

The production gives her take on Belfast life and is a reflection on the city, its particular cultural practices and the experience of living here today.

Co-commissioned by Prime Cut Productions, Belfast International Arts Festival, Dublin Dance Festival and the Abbey Theatre, the production is supported by the British Council and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and has been in development for two years.

Doherty has a unique perspective on Belfast having moved here from London as a child.

Speaking about the city, she said: “When I moved to Belfast as a ten-year-old it was definitely a bit of a culture shock. I was living on the Falls Road, had a strong north London accent and wore different types of clothes. It took a wee bit of adjustment to fit in.

“It was easier for me than my brother though - I was considered the quirky girl who studied drama and dance, while for him, being a teenage boy in a Catholic school with a British accent had its own set of problems – they still wrote, ‘Brits get out.’

“Saying that, if I hadn’t moved here, I wouldn’t have met Marie Mannion (her dance teacher at St Louise’s Comprehensive College) or Susan McMillan (who runs a school of dance), and never started dancing. That’s what made Belfast class - and I became a mover.”

Known for making gritty, raw work that challenges masculinity and social norms, in Hard to be Soft Doherty creates an alternative reality for Belfast.

She said: “For me, what’s missing in Belfast is platonic love and physical contact, especially among working class men, but I think this is a western cultural thing and is seen as a sign of weakness. Things like hugging or holding hands, regardless of gender or age are important and I think induce openness and empathy.

“I truly believe people also need to move their body more and for movement to induce pleasure rather than just to change the way we look to fit western ideals of beauty.”

In this production Doherty also highlights what makes Belfast so special.

She said: “Belfast has always had its own original style. From the hardness of the Belfast accent and the way we say things, to the beauty of our landscapes and our music scene - we have an original way that we do things and we should be proud and open about that. For one thing, people here can really dance – it might be drink-fuelled escapism – but it’s different from anywhere else.”

The production sees Doherty collaborate with renowned local DJ David Holmes:

“Many people recommended David to me when I explained what I was trying to do energetically with the work – he’s been in the scene from the start, stirring up energy and helping people to open up. When people let go through music there is no hierarchy or status – it’s free and it’s punk and it’s socialist. David is a legend for a reason.”

Hard to Be Soft premieres at The MAC, Belfast tonight (Thursday October 26) and runs until October 28. Tickets at themaclive.com/.