Dublin Dance Festival 2018: Hard To Be Soft - A Belfast Prayer
Where Angels Fear To Thread
Beneath a single shaft of light three hooded figures, suggestive of monks or teenagers, stand silently over a thurible spilling incense towards the heavens. Behind them, large bars reach towards the ceiling, the front of a giant cage pressing out towards the edge of the stage. The image is simple and evocative, like most of the images in Oona Doherty’s thought provoking “Hard To Be Soft - A Belfast Prayer,” yet far more suggestive and complex for being so. Composed of four distinct pieces, “Hard To Be Soft - A Belfast Prayer” offers a reflection on living in contemporary Belfast. Which means images like the cage, and the thurible and incense suggestive of Catholic ritual, are often far more loaded than might first seem. This sense of richness in simplicity often recurs throughout “Hard To Be Soft - A Belfast Prayer,” in which Doherty’s dark prayer frames Belfast and its people in disturbing images steeped less in visceral immediacy and more in a recognisible realism and a meditative stillness.
As the three figures disappear, Doherty makes her way centre stage in the dark, her performance area seriously reduced by the cage pressing close to the edge of the stage. Lights on, Doherty begins the first sequence informed by a signature choreography. One involving a mimetic realism, despite Doherty's blurring of the gender lines, that restricts and locates itself within a socially disadvantaged, hyper masculinity with all its violence and vices. Against this Doherty juxtaposes some wonderful abstract movements of fall and flow as she weaves through people and moments, married to an array of facial expressions often synchronised to a rich score and a voice over track hinting of violence. Slowly an image of Doherty’s Belfast becomes clearer. One not dissimilar to stumbling through Temple Bar on a weekend night and catching glimpses of fleeting expressions as they drift by, moving from one onto the next.
After Doherty retreats as the cage opens, the most multilayered of the four sequences begins with hip-hop dancers from Belfast’s Ajendacne Youth Dance Company. Young women, dressed in jackets and white trousers, wonderfully articulate a complex range of images and experiences as they craft ever tightening circles, form into single and double lines, executing ballet stances, hip hop moves, posing, posturing, smiling, fluidly utilising every inch of space in constructing various physical arrangements and images. Again, facial expressions along with a recognisible realism make their presence felt, with one young dancer mouthing to the audience “I don't know what to do, I can't take it any more” striking at the lonely heart of the sequence.
The subtlest, yet perhaps most powerful instalment involving two male dancers, John Scott and Bryan Quinn, sees them, stripped to the waist, approaching each other slowly from either side of the stage. Gradually they engage in a simple, subtle, yet richly textured interplay often reminiscent, but not restricted to, a wrestling match. Meanwhile a distracting mirroring image projected behind them competes for attention. Here, in profound simplicity, an understated power, aggression, sensuality, and vulnerability are revealed, contrasting with the loud posturing, youthful masculinity of earlier. Which returns in the fourth and final sequence, again danced by Doherty. If not dissimilar to the first, with recurring facial expressions and body positions suggesting sneers, jeers and tears, this time a greater vulnerability comes through. The final line of a poem by Doherty, Concrete Song, played over and against the score, directly references Belfast before Doherty leaves the stage and the music eventually fades.
While Ciaran Bagnall’s set and lighting design reinforce directness and simplicity, throughout “Hard To Be Soft - A Belfast Prayer” an uneasy tension exists between directness and suggestiveness, between its realism and abstraction. David Holmes sound design and composition also reflects this sense of unease, ranging from the sublime to the curious. A vibrant score for the hip hop sequence is followed by a less successful score for the male duet, which sounds like the interminable end music played over lengthy film credits as they roll up at the end of the movie. If “Hard To Be Soft - A Belfast Prayer” gives space on stage for voices, bodies, and lived experiences not always represented there, it does so in a fashion that seems to limit the discourse on those lives to specific experiences. Experiences which “Hard To Be Soft - A Belfast Prayer,” despite some obvious exceptions, doesn’t do enough to accentuate their uniquely Belfast dimension, seeming to reflect the experiences of almost any disadvantaged area. Provocative voice-overs by Packy Lee and Lalor Roddy, creating disturbing crowd scenes as well as offering insights into a burnt out police officer and why young women strive to look glamorous, reinforce the sense of how hard it is to be soft.
As its title, “Hard To Be Soft - A Belfast Prayer” rightly suggests, there are two distinct aspects to this performance. If the former is the far more satisfying, exploring the hardness that results from poverty and oppression, it feels less so when contrasted with Doherty’s excellent Hope Hunt whose visceral energy and greater degree of abstraction in its exploration of masculinity proved far more potent than the meditative, and often limiting realism of “Hard To Be Soft - A Belfast Prayer.” A Belfast, many would argue, is not limited to, or properly reflected in the experiences on display. Yet what cannot be argued with is Doherty’s sheer, unrelenting honesty which bravely goes where angels fear to thread, entering the dark, yet vibrant spaces others rarely even recognise. A prayer of hope, of petition, or a prayer unanswered, “Hard To Be Soft - A Belfast Prayer” tackles some difficult themes and raises some hard questions in this thought provoking and often mesmerising production.
“Hard To Be Soft - A Belfast Prayer” by Oona Doherty runs as Part of Dublin Dance Festival 2018 at The Abbey Theatre until May 19