Review: Dancing That Unfolds Like a Prayer

The choreographer Oona Doherty grasps that in everybody — and in every body — there is a point of tension between hard and soft, tough and vulnerable, pleasure and pain. For all their posturing, her characters, anonymous working-class youth from Belfast, ache. And while her movement language creates an exacting physical entity, transcendence comes through an inner battle: fighting the hard to find the soft.

In “Hard to Be Soft — A Belfast Prayer,” inspired by the city she grew up in, Doherty explores the trauma caused by the Troubles, which lasted around 30 years. Unfolding in four sections, the work, tenacious yet ethereal, begins and ends with shape-shifting solos in which Doherty embodies young men from Belfast — with an air of machismo, she snarls a lip, digs her hands deep into her pockets and stands stooped, her back curling into its pelvis. She takes a few steps, a sauntering kind of stroll known locally as a dander.

But gradually, as her mannerisms evaporate, she becomes more than a macho body. She has described “Hard to Be Soft” as a physical prayer, and moments have an otherworldly effect: What is trapping her? What is trying to escape? It’s the soul, the essence of a spirit.

With the opening tableau featuring wafting incense, the theater — the newly renovated Irish Arts Center — even smelled like a church. (It was the first dance performance in the space, but that still didn’t warrant 20 minutes of monotonous speeches.) The score, by the electronic musician and composer David Holmes, had a liturgical feel as choral music mingled with voice-overs that capture the sound of chaotic street life.

In the score, fights erupt as Doherty — her blond hair slicked back in a small bun, a gold chain bouncing against her chest — crumbles and rises from the floor as if floating between a dream and a nightmare. All the while, the lighting gives the set, essentially a tall white cage that opens on one side, a haunting, angelic glow. Is it heaven or purgatory?

And is Doherty laughing or crying? Doherty has an uncanny ability to quiet her features so abruptly that, suddenly, her face can become as still and peaceful as eyes staring out at you from an icon. The way she uses her eyes is one of the most arresting things about her — sometimes they gleam brightly; sometimes they’re dead.

A blackout gives way to the second section, in which a female voice-over talks about overcoming the “tragedy in the walls” by dressing “it up with glamour because we have to make light of tragedy.”

For the women of Belfast, she says, looking good is a form of armor. It’s also empowering. Eight young women from Young Dancemakers Company swirl into the space, circling the stage as if marking territory with forthright, punctuated steps to a steady percussive beat. Wearing black leggings and bright satin jackets, they are boldly defiant. Doherty calls them the Sugar Army for a reason. (To fill their ranks, she finds local dancers in each city she tours.)

Inspired by the girls she went to school with in Belfast who, as she wrote in the performance publication Draff, practiced disco dancing for competitions, Doherty’s strident, tough army echoes her memory of them: “Wiping sexuality and shapes out into space like weapons.”

Here, perhaps, they needed more stage time to discover how to draw their individual power into a shimmering unit. One of the most tender moments comes when they break apart, laughing and falling over one another to convey the innocence of women in the making — some there, others on the cusp.

In the third section, John Scott, a veteran Dublin choreographer, and Sam Finnegan — both bare chested, with protruding bellies — slowly make their way to the center of the stage like sumo wrestlers. A voice-over hints at the relationship of father and son. An embrace soon becomes more tense, more loaded — one pushes, the other pulls — as the way they use their weight and flesh (again, locating the tension between soft and hard) hints at grief, at conflict. When Scott briefly cups the back of Finnegan’s head, we see not just love but the anguish of it.

Physically, “Hard to Be Soft” wasn’t a great fit for the Irish Arts Center theater. It seemed cramped and sightlines were spotty for both the opening solo and the duet, much of which took place at the lip of the stage. But the final solo, in which Doherty enters with a hard fall onto the stage, was glittering.

Performing again as a young Belfast man, she gradually slips between distress and calm — a kind of resignation — as flickering memories take over her body and the sound of melancholic strings fills the air. Doherty echoes moments of her first solo as she patiently paints the story of a man’s life through a dance. Or is it a physical prayer? In “Hard to Be Soft,” it feels like the same thing.

Hard to Be Soft — A Belfast Prayer

Through Jan. 23 at the Irish Arts Center; irishartscenter.org

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