It’s a man’s world for dancer Oona Doherty

Ellie O’Byrne meets contemporary dancer Oona Doherty to discuss her tour of Ireland with the show Maria Maria Maria.

It’s a man’s world for dancer Oona Doherty

"THERE’S a lot of trauma and a lot of neglect in Ireland. It’s too easy just to make a lovely dance show about dancing, when there’s people sleeping outside on the streets outside the theatre.”

Contemporary dancer Oona Doherty doesn’t make “lovely dance shows about dancing.” She makes gritty, raw work, channelling the delinquent masculinity of some of the denizens of her native Belfast.

In Lazarus and the Birds of Paradise, a 12-minute solo, she twists her androgynous form around their gestures and attitudes and, once she owns their mannerisms, she creates of them tableaux inspired by Caravaggio.

“I’m trying to make them into holy angels, I suppose,” she says. Why? “The rhythm that the boys give off in the street. The way that they move their feet, the kind of posturing they’re doing: there’s an energy coming off them that’s really frightening. People don’t look at them and I think we need to look. I think the world needs a bit more love.”

Doherty’s star is in the ascendant; she won best performer in Dublin’s Tiger Fringe Festival, and she starred in Enda Walsh’s play, Arlington, which made waves at this year’s Galway Arts Festival. But it’s the magnetic appeal of her portrayal of young, street-smart men, in Lazarus and the Birds of Paradise, that’s making the biggest waves.

Why she embodies the disadvantaged male, and how she does it so powerfully, seem rooted in childhood; moving to Belfast from London, at ten, she and her brother lived on the Catholic Falls Road and they had London accents.

“I suppose it was a bit intimidating and maybe I am processing that,” she says. “It was harder for my brother, because he was a lad. Because I was a girl and I got into the drama and the dancing, it was okay to be a bit different, but if you’re just trying to go to football and do the normal things, with a British accent, it’s difficult.”

Doherty is dyslexic and, in her early teens, found achievement in dance that was missing from her schooling: “The way the normal education system is, if you can’t sit still and you can’t write, it doesn’t work, but if someone shows you a movement and you learn kinetically, it can be quite a good realm to be in, if you’re dyslexic.”

This kinetic sensibility is evident in Doherty’s understanding of her work. “Your movement is a consequence of your nervous system and the history of whatever you’ve been through.

“If you try to dance completely openly, some of all the goodness that’s happened to you before, and some of all the badness, should come through in every movement.”

“Even though Lazarus is slow motion, it’s very emotional and I often cry a lot while I’m doing it. I try to give everything; every bit of meat and muscle in my body. I try to give it all out in one shot.”

Doherty’s solo is touring Ireland as part of Maria Maria Maria, a triptych of three solos also featuring Emma Fitzgerald and Maria Nilsson Waller.“To do a big lap of the whole country with two really brilliant women is pretty powerful,” she says.

Among Doherty’s plans for 2017 are performances in Hyde Bank prison in Belfast to turn her recordings of prisoners into a “Belfast theme tune”, which she will in turn incorporate into a four-part “physical prayer” for her hometown.

  • Maria Maria Maria premieres tomorrow at the Firkin Crane in Cork, with further performances including Dance Limerick on November 29

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