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Oona through the ages

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Still from Oona Doherty’s film The Devil. Image © Luca Trufarelli
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Oona Doherty ventures down new roads as London’s Dance Umbrella gives us a chance to look back at where she’s been

Oona Doherty needs (almost) no introduction. If you’ve been following contemporary dance these past few years, it’s likely her name is familiar to you. Born in London but Belfast-bred, she was chosen as an Aerowaves artist in 2017 with her piece Hope Hunt and the Ascension into Lazarus. Since then, her work has consistently been touring Europe, receiving praise for its raw energy, its gender-questioning sensitivity and in-your-face vulnerability.

This autumn, during the Dance Umbrella festival in London, her newest piece, Navy Blue, will have its UK premiere at Sadler’s Wells before continuing its European tour through November. On top of that, two of her short films co-created with Luca Truffarelli, Hunter Filmed (2021) and The Devil (2021), will be available to watch worldwide from 7 to 31 October as part of Dance Umbrella’s Digital Pass.

Blue Quote Mark

Instead of having a cocktail, you’re having a shot of vodka

Blue Quote Mark

For Doherty, film and stage work go hand in hand. In her time as a dancer for Dutch company T.r.a.s.h. and later with Irish choreographer Emma Martin, whether she was performing for the camera or on stage, she was fed and guided with cinematic references from David Cronenberg to Jumanji. ‘They give you cinema,’ she tells me on a Zoom call after the Paris performance of Navy Blue. ‘I was always given little movies in my head and that was my reason for dancing.’

It’s only fitting her own stage work would then gain a second life on screen. ‘In all my films, I’m actually trying to say what’s on stage,’ she explains. ‘You have a chance to be more eloquent because you’re completely leading the eye. You’re going more directly into the sensation. Instead of having a cocktail, you’re having a shot of vodka.’

Just as she seems to be embarking on a new phase in her career as a more established dance maker and artist, those three works offer three snapshots of key insights into Doherty’s vision. Looking at the works back to back, we see her going back to her roots, processing through her own dance history, all the facets of her style and technique.

Woman looks pensively. Behind her, a man leans against a white car with an open boot
Hunter Filmed. Image © Luca Truffarelli

We start with Hope Hunt, her first big recognition, thanks to Hunter Filmed. ‘I really felt like it’s the first time that I’ve seen how it feels to do the hope hunt, from the dancer’s perspective,’ she says. ‘That is because of Gaspar Noé. See how he filmed Irreversible? That’s what I said to Luca. “Film it like Gaspar Noé, fuck it if we don’t get all the choreography in”,’ she recalls, referring to the film’s dynamic and immersive camera work. ‘Also the spiral of the Lazarus: it’s the start of MDMA, it’s the bottom of ketamine… It’s got weight in it.’

The approach to The Devil was more traditional yet surprises us with its villainy. ‘We were just having a good time, just playing and trying to do something different, like “What if we stick to more of a narrative?” ’ In this short film, beyond the hunt we’ve seen her explore in previous pieces, another theme emerges: what needs to die for something new to be born?

Which brings us to Navy Blue, an exploration of the fragile equilibrium between collective strength and individual insignificance. Created with and for 12 dancers, it evokes the power of solidarity as much as the crushing loneliness of human struggle. Its genesis is a reminder that taking a few steps back can help us go leaps and bounds further than we started.

‘It was during lockdown. I rented a small dance studio down the street; the kids’ ballet class was off so I was able to get in. It was also the studio where my ballet teacher – she’s not alive any more – taught when I was a kid. I just started doing ballet to get strong again and I was really enjoying myself,’ Doherty says. ‘You know when no one’s watching you can like, do your stuff. So I was playing with Maria Callas and Rachmaninov because it was so dramatic, so romantic, so painful to listen to, it helped me get into my ballet groove. It grew from there.’

Doherty’s foray into such conventional form feels like a far cry from her early works, but these ballet dancers come in blue workers’ overalls. Suddenly, the redundancy of the barre is not so different from that of an assembly line. The evocation calls her home in more ways than one. ‘Not that I believe in ghosts but, it was my old ballet teacher’s room. And my contemporary dance teacher’s gonna see my show in London… Yeah, Susan would be really proud,’ she says, teary-eyed.

Trailer for Navy Blue

Doherty’s work shines by its meatiness, its unique colour, brought on by the hope and asperities her collaborators bring with them to the work. Her forever inspiration: painter Francis Bacon, whose works she even displays in her home. ‘The solo at the end of Navy Blue, of Helium, an arm, a blur… That’s really Francis Bacon to me. That kind of painting where you get the figure of a man and the taste of a soul, because of the texture of the paint.’

Her own soul is going through a deep transformation, as her relationship to dance and performance mends from a more tortured, complicated phase born out of mostly working alone. ‘Navy’s helped me come out of that. I’ve transcended it in that now I know that I need to dance with other people,‘ she explains. ‘Once I get into creative flow and I get to work, I can dance all day but now I just need another person in the room. Because if you’re really on your own when you’re dancing, you’re really digging: what is judgement, what’s good, what’s bad? I got a lot of juice out of that for four years but maybe I just need that fun and dance with other people now, you know?’

This need even shows on her shows’ programmes. Navy Blue’s credits cite Oona Doherty as the choreographer ‘in collaboration with the dancers’ – an obvious statement for anyone who’s been in a dance studio during the creation process, but still all too rare to see in the programme booklet given to the audience at a national theatre. ‘All shows are made in collaboration with the dancers. It’s strange that we don’t write it that way – it should be the norm.’

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Woman in breton t-shirt, seated against dark background
Oona Doherty, photo © Luca Truffarelli

Navy Blue also marks Doherty’s debut as a Scaling Up artist for Big Pulse Dance Alliance (a European contemporary dance network launched in 2021). She is aware she has unlocked a new phase of her career. ‘I’ve been very very lucky. Especially given where I’m from. Maybe it’s an Irish thing… I’m really chuffed but maybe have a little bit of guilt about it, too? There are just so many other choreographers and dancers, there’s so much amazing work in Ireland and it doesn’t tour… So I guess I’m just lucky.’

She’s tried to process this ongoing transformation through her work, notably The Devil. ‘It was me trying to get comfortable with being told, “Here, you can be bigger, Here’s a bigger budget”… Argh!’ she says, laughing. ‘My first surface level of dealing with that is pretending to be a bad bastard, because most of the people who are higher up are bad bastards!’

But the pretending stops there: Doherty’s social consciousness won’t let her keep it up. Her new status affords her more time to go into a new work, which brings up a reflection on the (lack of) diversity of the industry. ‘I’m not going to make a new premiere next year. I don’t know how they do it but some people are dishing out two premieres a year! How can you do that and avoid regurgitating? How do you do that with a family? It’s diluting out other people who could be in this room. It’s building towards one type of person who’s able to provide that.’

But despite the added scrutiny, she keeps a playful outlook on the future. ‘I’ve only just gotten to this level and there are different expectations. I have to learn properly what they are and see if I’m going to piss anyone off.’ 

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Paris, France
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Navy Blue tours through to the end of November: www.oonadohertyweb.com/navy-blue
Dance Umbrella Digital Pass is available until 31 October: www.danceumbrella.co.uk/event/digital-pass-2022/

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