Oona shows how dance can help bring about social change in Hard to be Soft

AJENDANCE: Young dancers from the east Belfast-based dance company took part in Oona Doherty's stunning Hard to be Soft at the MAC last night.                                                                                                                                                          Pic: Luca Trufarelli
Robert McMillen

Hard to be Soft: A Belfast Prayer

The Mac

Belfast International Arts Festival

A famous actor from these parts once asked me if I wanted him to expand on his theories about the homo-erotic nature of Orange marches.

It being breakfast time, I declined the offer.

The conversation came back to me after watching Oona Doherty’s Hard to be Soft: A Belfast Prayer, a stunning four-episode dance performance featuring hard men and strong young women in what Aoife McGrath has called “a physical practice that can both register and realise social change.”

But how can dance bring about social change?

Lazarus and the Birds of Paradise sees Oona on the ground. We hear the admittedly unusual mixture  of Miserere mei, Deus, (Have mercy on me, O God”), a setting of Psalm 51 (50) by Italian composer Gregorio Allegri_ and the sounds of young male agresstion taken from the locally-made short film, Wee Bastards.

We know the type. The ones who make us look up  from our phones with their staccato f-words and “aye, yer Ma,” but Oona’s body movements evoke both this machismo posturing but also the insecurity that lies behind the bravura.

When we start to see through the masks, then, and only then, can change happen.

Memories of St Louise’s girls school on the Falls Road inspired the second piece, The Sugar Army. Oona went there when the family moved back home.

“I joined St Louise’s Comprehensive college on the Falls Road Belfast. A huge sprawling seventies building over bog. With thousands of ‘Brown Bomber’s’ squawking inside.  ‘Oh Mummy!’ she writes.

Disco dancing and a funeral cortege made this a moving performance from the young dangers from Ajendance, an east Belfast=based dance and training company that has gone from strength to strength over the last three years and it’s easy to see why.

Episode 3, Meat Kaleidoscope, is a visceral look at the relationship between men.   

Fashion designer Ciarán Sweeney told me once that Irish men have a very underdeveloped sense of touch, so what kind of atavistic convulsions were going on as two shirtless men (John Scott and Bryan Quinn) started with what looked like an embrace which then turned into an angst-ridden wrestle. In the background, the kind of reproach that men throw at each other - “Have you forgot where you came from? - played in the background.

Finally, a kind of rebirth was mooted in Episode 4. Helium, a rebirth where we are “completely at the mercy of our own body.”

This was all powerful stuff with David Holmes’ soundcape capturing the inner world of the characters and the outside world of Belfast and its mean streets in all their complexity.

Hard to be Soft is a piece that needs to be seen again and again to find the different levels of meaning and everyone will take different from it but it really is a prayer that we see through the stereotypes to our shared humanity.

It’s hard not to disagree with the person who said to me that she thought the piece would go down in the history books. "It felt rather special." she said.

Indeed it did.

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