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An astute choreographer stumbles (and rises) to hope
Oona Doherty performs outside the 92nd Street Y in New York, March 6, 2020. The Belfast artist portrayed working-class men in "Hope Hunt and the Ascension Into Lazarus." Andrea Mohin/The New York Times.

by Gia Kourlas



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Oona Doherty’s entrance would have been better had it been a surprise; it wasn’t, but it was still a doozy. This contemporary choreographer and performer from Belfast, Ireland, is astonishing — not merely raw, as she is often described, but exactingly articulate. She is in possession of a body with as much flexibility as her mind, as was revealed in her arresting exploration of the young men of her hometown.

On Friday, at the start of Doherty’s “Hope Hunt and the Ascension Into Lazarus,” spectators huddled around the entrance of the 92nd Street Y in a cold drizzle and waited for a car to pull up to the door. It was a desperate-looking thing, with a garbage bag taped over the back window; one of its occupants, Joss Cotter, got out, lit a rolled cigarette and surveyed the crowd with hunched shoulders before walking around to the back and opening the trunk. Out spilled Doherty.

Dressed in a baggy blue shell jacket and pants, she crumbled and rose from the pavement with a spooky pliancy as Strength NIA’s “Northern Ireland Yes” played. Once standing, she held her arms out and swayed to the beat before sliding back down to the sidewalk and crawling between spectators. Rising and buckling backward, sniffing and swiping her nose with the occasional head toss, she maintained a gliding, catlike grace.

After she joined Cotter and the driver to stand in front of the car — they raised one fist in the air, then the other and then both to lyrics that included, “God is a Catholic man from Creggan” — her mates abandoned her, driving off as Cotter muttered something about having to “see a man about a dog.”

Doherty was crestfallen, but quickly recovered. “Get into the theater!” she yelled with stomping feet. We obliged, making our way to the performance space, Buttenweiser Hall, where she continued once we had settled in and she had traded her Adidas for bare feet. In her nuanced exploration of the misunderstood, hapless, posturing male figures of Belfast, Doherty — part vaudevillian, part shape-shifter — used her voice and body to transform herself into multiple others with a cellular-level intensity.

In her all-too-brief run at the Harkness Dance Festival, Doherty presented her take on masculinity like a living painting, morphing from a figure of swaggering confidence to one of feigning nonchalance. Rage became fear. Sounds gradually turned into words. All the while, Doherty’s body turned into a wave as she rocked from side to side with her expressions both pained and preening.

No movement or sound went astray; clearly, Doherty’s work is choreographed within an inch of its life, but the material is so deeply embedded in her compact, pliable form that it also seems unpremeditated. It’s also strangely natural when, say, her leg sweeps in an elegant rond de jambe before she collapses in a heap. Her balance is uncanny as physical tics — the sniffs and furrowed brow — take possession of her face.

There are dark moments here, but the work is not entirely about darkness. It says it all in the title: This is a hunt for hope. In the end, the dance transforms again when Doherty takes off her dark clothes to reveal an all-white ensemble for a final journey in which she transports her body to a place of vulnerability.

After a finger-pointing snarl, she leans back, and suddenly her face, perfectly still, glows as if she were made of wax. Braiding masculinity and femininity, her arms slowly swirl around her undulating torso. Her presence is beyond eerie: She is the most alone person you have ever seen, and you feel it in your bones.

© 2020 The New York Times Company










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