Hard to Be Soft: A Belfast Prayer
London, Queen Elizabeth Hall
11 October 2019
Gallery of pictures by Foteini Christofilopoulou
The dance artist Oona Doherty was transplanted to Belfast from London aged ten, and there was the gaze of a curious outsider about Hard to Be Soft. But there was also a deep empathy for the life of that city’s streets, which sprang into being before us. It’s a tricky mix to pull off, but Doherty did it with aplomb.
Structured as four episodes, the piece started with three silent figures, in shadow and with faces obscured, gathered round a candle and burning incense stick. This stark juxtaposition of violence and religion saturated all of Hard to Be Soft, as Doherty invoked a community that grew up fighting; that has, as she puts it, “an era in their bones” and is still struggling with that toxic legacy.
Doherty appeared first. Her solo – Lazarus and The Bird of Paradise – had her responding to the recorded voices of young men, adopting the visual vocabulary of swaggering males: hands shoved down tracksuit bottom waistband; curled lip, confrontational stance and exaggerated gestures; the drunken stagger and raucous laughter. But to punctuate this vivid demonstration of the performative nature of these men’s aggression, David Holmes’s soundscape let liturgical singing swell up and in those moments Doherty was transformed, gracefully arcing and stretching. The to-and-fro of it was mesmerising.
All this was performed in front of a towering cage structure, which swung open as a lively female voice described the daily grind of life for Belfast’s women, who are “superstars for putting on their armour and getting on with their day” in spite of “f***ing scumbag men” and the “granite stagnancy” of their lives.
Ten young teenage girls, in tracksuits and make-up – the Sugar Army, all recruited locally for this show – appeared. They circled the stage together, performed a hip-hop inflected haka, adopted supermodel poses, and sighed en masse before crossing the stage on tiptoe, with tiny pas de bourree steps. They emanated strength in numbers – but in moments when individuals broke away from the group you caught a glimpse beneath the hardened carapace.
Meat Kaleidoscope was equally affecting. John Scott and Sam Finnegan – big-bellied and bare-chested – appeared at either side of the stage and made their way stutteringly towards each other to engage in a wrestler’s hug. The voices we heard were those of a father and son with a litany of deaths on their mind. Scott and Finnegan pulled at and jostled with each other, sinking to the ground, flailing on the floor, falling to their knees and thumping the ground with their fists, until they fell into an embrace once more, this time suffused with tenderness. Kaleidoscopic close-up images of wrestling men were projected behind them, to disorientating effect.
Then Doherty returned for Helium, a closing solo that offered something of a synthesis of what had come before. Buffeted by unseen forces, she bent backwards and tumbled, blending hip-hop-style locks and a tai-chi glide into her movements. From out of this surged characters – men and women – sketched deftly with gesture and gait; a fresh interpretation of “street dance” as dance that gave us the life of the street in all its chaotic intensity.