Dancer Oona Goes Soft on Belfast

Choreographer and dancer Oona Doherty partners with David Holmes to put her slant on the city as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival

Dancer Oona Doherty's production, Hard to Be Soft: A Belfast Prayer, which opens at the MAC tonight is a reflection on the city and the experiences and realities of people living here today.

Co-commissioned by Prime Cut Productions, Belfast International Arts Festival, Dublin Dance Festival and the Abbey Theatre, the production is supported by the British Council and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and has been in development for two years – beginning with the first part of the saga, Lazarus and the Birds of Paradise.

Since then, the piece has grown, including her previous show Hope Hunt, which was performed at Belfast’s Hydebank prison and won her impressive accolades including the Total Theatre Award and The Place Dance Award at this year’s Edinburgh Festival.

For Doherty, this production is a four-part 'physical prayer' for Belfast, a city she now considers home, having moved here from London as a child.

Speaking about the city, she said: 'When I moved to Belfast as a ten-year-old it was definitely a bit of a culture shock. I was living on the Falls Road, had a strong North London accent and wore different types of clothes. It took a wee bit of adjustment to fit in.

'It was easier for me than my brother though - I was considered the quirky girl who studied drama and dance, while for him, being a teenage boy in a Catholic school with a British accent had its own set of problems – they still wrote; ‘Brits get out.’

'Though I do remember one year the school play was Oliver –  and as the only Londoner at St. Louise’s I was raging when I didn’t get the lead – showbiz was brutal even back then (She did however play one of Fagan’s boys in the end).

'Saying that, if I hadn’t moved here, I wouldn’t have met [dance teacher at St Louise’s Comprehensive College] Marie Mannion or Susan McMillan [who runs a school of dance], and never started dancing. That’s what made Belfast class – and I became a mover.'

Known for making gritty, raw work, that challenges masculinity and social norms, in Hard to be Soft Doherty creates an alternative reality for Belfast.


She said: 'For me, what’s missing in Belfast is platonic love and physical contact; especially among working class men, but I think this is a western cultural thing and is seen as a sign of weakness. Things like hugging or holding hands, regardless of gender or age are important and I think induce openness and empathy.

'I truly believe people also need to move their body more and for movement to induce pleasure rather than just to change the way we look to fit western ideals of beauty.'

Doherty through Hard to Be Soft also highlights what makes Belfast so special.

She said: 'Belfast has always had its own original style. From the hardness of the Belfast accent and the way we say things, to the beauty of our landscapes and our music scene -we have an original way that we do things and we should be proud and open about that. For one thing, people here can really dance – it might be drink fuelled and escapism – but it’s different from anywhere else.'

The production sees Doherty collaborate with renowned Belfast DJ, producer and composer David Holmes:

'Many people recommended David to me when I explained what I was trying to do energetically with the work – he’s been in the scene from the start, stirring up energy and helping people to open up. When people let go through music there is no hierarchy or status – its free and its punk and its socialist. David is a legend for a reason and is like Belfast’s version of the Greek God Dionysus – providing the perfect soundtrack for Hard to be Soft.'

Also speaking about the production was David Alderdice, Director, British Council Northern Ireland. He said: 'It is a great pleasure to support Oona and Hard to Be Soft at this year’s Belfast International Arts Festival.

'This thought-provoking and award-winning performance is a must-see, and a great example of the innovative and diverse dance scene in Northern Ireland, with Doherty one of the most exciting talents to emerge in contemporary dance in recent years. We are also delighted to get the chance to collaborate again with the Arts Council Northern Ireland and Prime Cut Productions.;

After the Belfast International Arts Festival Doherty will tour Hope Hunt nationwide, before taking Hard to be Soft on tour. Hard to Be Soft premieres at the MAC, Belfast on Thursday, October 26 and runs until October 28. Tickets can be bought from

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