Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Navy Blue – speaking and dancing to the personal, sectoral and societal challenges of modern life (The MAC until 26 October as part of Belfast International Arts Festival) #BIAF22

Oona Doherty has a history of producing pieces of dance theatre that are full on, high energy, provocative, and body-stretching. Navy Blue builds on this legacy with an exciting new production that rages against modern life, the state of the arts, and the mental health of artists.

Out of the darkness emerges a line of twelve dancers. This is no Riverdance. Dressed in blue shirts and trousers, they make frenzied, shaking movements, yet also glide slowly across the stage. At first, they seem to be incredibly in sync with each other, creating perfect lines, waves, then breaking out into circles, scrums and back. Yet there’s individuality among the troupe. Look carefully, and each dancer brings a different personality to the swarm of movement.

The easiest to spot is a balding dancer whose brow is furrowed and eyeline wanders, unlike the regimented stare of the others. He conveys a sense of malaise with his world, questioning the motion or the motives behind the motion. As the twelve sprint around the stage in circles, he falls behind. Others have more subtle mannerisms. But as the piece progresses, it’s clear that these are not minor acts of choreographical error, but deliberate flaws and expressions of humanity bolted into the piece.

A second scene punctuates Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with gunshots. Each time, a dancer will fall to the ground, while the rest carry on, threading their motion through the mounting body count cluttering the stage, and acting more nervously. The felled dancers are ultimately swallowed up by a blue sea that fills the stage, opening up the way for an extended piece of performance poetry. Are we watching the death by a thousand cuts of the arts? Is it a metaphor for the creative sector soldiering on while comrades and companies lose funding and stop producing? Or maybe we’re also watching how poor ideas and bad attitudes can pervade the whole world?

A quick aside. On Valentine’s Day on 1990, as the Voyager 1 space craft sped past the boundary of the Solar System, it turned so its camera could snap a portrait. The Earth – some six billion kilometres away – appears as a bright blue pixel in the image. Cosmologist Carl Sagan coined the phrase “the pale blue dot”, having requested that NASA spin the spacecraft around to take the photograph, sensing that it would give humanity a perspective on home. The film The Farthest is well worth watching to catch more the story. (Warning: expect to cry!)

Doherty picks up on the imagery, placing her pale blue dots (dancers) on a pale blue dot (the Earth). Her narration (written with Bush Moukarzel) questions human purpose, the role of dance, the cost of expression, the (in)significance of life. Copies of the script are made available to the audience.

Having established that we’re all the same yet individual in the opening scenes – which turn out to be mere appetisers for Navy Blue’s main course – Doherty contemplates how “every saint and sinner in the history of our species” (and even “corrupt politicians”) has grown from a baby-sized “small pink dot”, even if do some go on to turn “this pale blue dot into a pale red dot”. And then she turns to herself, contemplating “the poison of privilege”, the essential blue-collar worker “labouring to keep this inessential story going”, and concludes that insignificance, unimportance and nothingness are significant, important and not nothing after all.

It’s a cry from the heart, dogged by the pandemic blues and the increasingly uphill challenge of producing work. Unusually, the production budget for Navy Blue is woven into the monologue.

While the words on their own wouldn’t feel out of place at a poetry slam, the movement on stage is even more sublime. Doherty’s own energy always impressed in her earlier solo shows. She has now built a whole troupe of dancers who can engage with and expand her trademark moves and discipline. Their individual and collective spatial awareness and timing is extraordinary. William Smith and Jamie xx’s scores pump out a nearly continuous beat.

As the sea of blue shrinks, the twelve disciples once again find their space to perform squeezed, darting across the remaining lit section of the stage that is now occupied by a single dancer, throwing themselves into the spotlight, some even opening their shirts as if to suggest that a hint of bare flesh might be what’s needed to find an audience in desperate straitened times. We’re back to the metaphor for conditions creative sector.

“You’ve come a long way, a really long way. Four and a half billion years. That’s a long way to come to see a show. But I appreciate it. It means the world to me.”

Whether speaking to the personal, sectoral or world-wide societal, Oona Doherty has much to say in this production that enthrals, and ensures her enduring significance as an artist, creator, performer and producer.

You can catch Navy Blue’s final local performance tonight at 7.45pm followed by a post show Q&A, in The MAC as part of Belfast International Arts Festival. Check out the preview post from a few weeks ago to find out what other treats Belfast International Arts Festival is serving up between now and 6 November.

Photo credit: Ghislain Mirat

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