Guest author Matthew Paluch sees Oona Doherty's ‘Navy Blue' in London
|Venue||Sadler's Wells Theatre, London|
|Date||21 October 2022|
Oona is the name on most people's lips. Doherty that is. And if you look at all the co-producers and partners involved with Doherty's latest work Navy Blue, you'll understand I'm not exaggerating. I attended the first night (21 October 2022) at Sadler's Wells as part of Dance Umbrella 2022.
When pre-show researching, I found the most interesting content on the Big Pulse Dance Alliance website – one of the (many) co-producers. Doherty is putting big ideas out there. Here's one paragraph of three:
“How can I develop unison dread on stage? Dance form as a problematic symbol of freedom? Unison as a type of micro communism? Individualism as a disease? Using classical dance form and theatre norms as the playing field of a violent cycle. A destructive algorithm.”
A lot to (potentially) consider. The bigger thought being: are any of these questions and statements rhetorical? If so, where does that suggest Doherty's thinking actually is? And what's she going to do with it in relation to her work?
Navy Blue sees Doherty use music by Jamie xx (again) and Sergei Rachmaninoff. So, to the content, and all its questions/possible propositions and potential answers…
As the lights went down, we were invited to a post-show talk. I made the decision then to not attend. Why? Because I want the writing to be a true representation of what I found. Will I do more thinking on Doherty moving forwards? Absolutely. But art also needs to be discussed in relation to how it's perceived by the observer in the moment. This allows for the (possible) power of communication through dance to be considered honestly. And this is that – at a very important level.
The stage lights lift with a dynamic boom to show 12 dancers – six men and six women (no alternative info was given) in a line. All dressed identically, in a Mao-style, navy blue utilitarian suit. Where are we? The costume and set design – bare, black box stage with spotlights up in the flies – suggests an institution of sorts; somewhere remote where things happen unpoliced.
Doherty understands music – rhythmically and melodically. There are many moments of music visualisation – literal communications of rhythm, emotional suggestions of melody, and also stillness… tapping into the power of the score. Using classical music in contemporary environments has a distinctive impact, and the specific Rachmaninoff used is an epic choice. It's truly symphonic in space and subtlety, and Doherty uses both aspects fully.
There is a premise – and it's one of dread as previously mentioned – I've sensed this kind of feeling before. And so has anyone else who watched Squid Game on Netflix. We don't need to go into great detail – let's simply address the overarching narratives: helplessness, abject fear, death, invisible enemies and the ethics involved. Doherty's corps de ballet navigates the space using movement, collectively and individually, as a mode of survival – both physically and emotionally.
She definitely pulls from classical form: the codified steps, inherent movement concepts and spatial traits. We see port de bras, cou-de-pied, croisé, épaulement, pirouette, bourrée. But always with a sense of respect. Generally when ballet features in an obvious way in contemporary dance it's mocked. The brunt of the joke. Not here. Doherty uses the dance style in many ways: for moments of pure abstraction, to highlight specific dynamics, for detailed precision or suggestions of emotional expression.
She uses bodies in space in a similar way to Balanchine – I kept seeing the opening section from Serenade. Movement through space-borne from intention, architectural awareness, and collective energy.
The dread element takes a moment to understand. The first body drops to the sudden arrival of an electric-sounding thud from nowhere. I initially thought, yeah that's cool, and moved on. The corps continue swirling in weather-like patterns, finding moments of physical torsion or spasmodic undulation and then down goes number two. And once we catch on, it seems they also do. The environment changes. Subtlety but completely. Everything is done with total awareness now – wide eyes, the fear of standing out or not committing enough. Down goes another. And it continues and gets more uneasy as the grim journey unfolds. When we've lost nine, the last three seem altered. They can't hide the fear anymore… somewhat suppressed, petrified facial expressions. Two go together, and then there's one. She shakes her head uncontrollably – the realisation of being the ‘winner' whilst also knowing what the ‘prize' is. Thud. The final drop feels reminiscent of Fokine's Dying Swan. Adagio, tender, inevitable.
At this point the piece transitions, which felt a little too elongated. And whatever was happening light-wise on the stage floor around the bodies, didn't read clearly in the stalls. But it gave us time to focus on the development of Jamie xx's musical arrival. A present-day Rachmaninoff. He offers an electronic symphony of sorts, which builds and deepens throughout the second half. When the base really kicks in at the end of the piece, the power of the major/minor play is impressive. It took me to the car scene from Lady Gaga's video for Marry The Night – which is no bad thing.
The majority of the second section is accompanied by a narration from Doherty. It can be read as poetically political or politically poetic. It's eclectic: she connects with the audience personally, contextualises the work, demands respect for the dancers, talks about the economics of the dance sector, rattles off all that's evil in the world and so on.
It feels like therapy for her. An exorcism. Which I empathise with as a fellow jaded socialist (I'm assuming, so apologies if incorrect). But the addition of the text takes away from the movement somewhat. Both choreographically and observer-focus-wise. Doherty has a lot to say – that's evident in the work – but perhaps keep it that way. We don't want to go down the Shechter route of (over) sharing. Or at least I don't want her to.
The piece closes with a bare-chested frenzy amongst the corps, and then a male dancer perpetuates into a solo. The movement is relentless. Not throwaway, but verging on the uncontrolled, desperate. He's comforted and sedated by an embrace from a female contemporary, who's then joined by the rest of the corps as the symphonic reverb builds, the house lights slightly lift, and then it's all gone. Darkness.
It's a properly brilliant piece. It feels new. Not overly relying on the past or having an obvious agenda concerning the future. It feels in, and deals with the present. Rare.
Doherty has clearly lived a life thus far. Processed it. And is now wanting and needing to share her thinking moving forwards. At points in the narration she suggested the whole thing was pointless. Here's hoping that was just a little artistic (license) modesty. We're lucky she uses dance as her medium. Stay with the dance Oona. It needs you. And we need it. Pina is definitely applauding.