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  • Chris O'Rourke

Dublin Dance Festival 2023: Navy Blue

Navy Blue by Oona Doherty. Image by Sinje Hasheider.


When it comes to dance, Oona Doherty is something of a genius. When it comes to recycled social media rants passed off as wisdom, she does herself few favours. Or her audience. Navy Blue capturing both extremities in which a whirling dervish of music and movement achieves sublimity to the first two movements of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. Only to be contested by some dread-laden, didactic droning as the medium as message is kicked to touch for a message as message. Visually and choreographically insipid, a lengthy lecture dwells on the point of pointlessness, the significance of insignificance, of being a dot on a pale blue dot where the best we can hope for is to love each other and die.

Yet why love if morality is just made-up social contracts? Created by million year old dust particles talking to other million year old dust particles making shoddy attempts at Utopia on their way to dying? Is it only love when you love only people and things deemed worthy of love? Hating those who don’t measure up? Navy Blue relishing its litany of names and shames. Giving gratitude to God when there’s seemingly no God to be grateful to. Never asking if maybe it’s time to say to hell with all this loose talk of love, which seems equally as divisive. Especially if it's all pointless anyway.

Navy Blue by Oona Doherty. Image by Dajana Lothert

Oddly, there are hints of life being more early on. Its twelve strong cast engaging with the robust, Russian romanticism of Rachmaninov’s masterpiece unveil something dark, pained, yet wonderfully human. Rachmaninov’s classic no stranger to reappraisal since first coming to prominence as the haunting score to Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, directed by David Lean in 1945. Since then it’s had many homes, but few which enliven and plumb its depths with the visceral vivacity of Navy Blue. The prisoner image never far away as dancers, attired in identical clothes, line up, shake, shiver, and twitch nervously. Then run and sweep, making intricate patterns as they swirl, movements arising from notes or musical phrases. The formalism of ballet clashing with pained, overburdened bodies whose gestural language is simple and immediate. Rachmaninov’s lush beauty clashing with the horrors unfolding. The sharp report of a rifle as another body falls, blood pooling beneath it. The rest seeking safety, hands raised in prayer, supplication, surrender; the raised fist a futile, almost laughable act. Images conjuring Orwell’s 1984. The Gulag. The Concentration Camp. The music reminiscent of the orchestra at Auschwitz where the heights of cultural achievement were played as millions were marched to their deaths. The rifle shots conjuring Amon Göth, best remembered from Schindler’s List, taking pot shots at innocent prisoners. The horror heartbreakingly palpable, the whole bordering on poetry as the last body falls, their pooling blood seeping towards the others to become a lake, or a tundra. Nadir Bouassria’s video design a stroke of genius. The whole asking vital and pertinent questions.

Till the flip comes as dancers rise from the dead to mouth Doherty’s musings on the meaning of the universe. Forming a straight, jittery line, with occasional solo flourishes, words come hard and fast against DJ Jamie xx's oppressive industrial score, sounding like discarded tracks from Bladerunner. Doherty's relentless tirade, which channels cheap Carl Sagan, as numbing as scrolling two hours past the point you promised yourself you'd stop. Most of what's heard forgettable, though an accounting of the cost for the show proves insightful, even if questions about who it’s for and was it worth it feel side stepped. If the upside is a sense of your mind crushing in on you and you unable to switch it off, the downside is a dull disappointing end, visually, choreographically, and thematically, to what had been a powerful and commanding work.

Navy Blue by Oona Doherty. Image by Sinje Hasheider.

Navy Blue, in wrestling with classical structures, is utterly astonishing in its power and brilliance. But as if not trusting its choreography to tell its tale, or in the intelligence of its audience to engage with it, Navy Blue indulges in shambolic, half heard meanderings where, if the final image of semi-naked release evokes the love so sloppily conveyed, you’re as apt to think ‘thank God the lecturing's over.’ Not that text and dance can’t converge and have interesting conversations. Here though, a separation of church and state would have been best.

Navy Blue, by Oona Doherty, in a Dublin Dance Festival, Abbey Theatre, Big Pulse Dance Alliance Co-Production, gets its Irish premiere as part of Dublin Dance Festival 2023 and runs at The Abbey Theatre until May 24.

For more information visit Dublin Dance Festival 2023 or The Abbey Theatre


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