'What's the point?' Oona Doherty's resonant ambivalence

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Wednesday, June 12, 2024

'What's the point?' Oona Doherty's resonant ambivalence
Dancers perform Oona Doherty’s “Navy Blue” at the Joyce Theater in New York on June 4, 2024. The choreographer’s “Navy Blue” is the rare work to express the emotions of life in pandemic lockdown. (Rachel Papo/The New York Times)

by Brian Seibert

NEW YORK, NY.- Despite the enormous impact that the pandemic had on dance, few works have emerged that capture the experience. Plenty of pieces have been shaped by isolation and social-distancing rules, but not many have made something of the emotions of lockdown. Oona Doherty’s “Navy Blue,” from 2022, is one, and the feelings it effectively expresses are those of the lucky: dread, helplessness, guilt.

At the start of “Navy Blue,” which had its New York premiere at the Joyce Theater on Tuesday, a dozen dancers are lined up, dressed in mandarin-collared workers’ suits, their heads shaking so fast that their faces blur. Mostly they move in loose unison: sinking, crouching, clumping; stumbling, circling, fleeing with nowhere to go.

Although the music is Rachmaninoff, big and romantic, the dancers shrink from large gestures, wary-eyed. When they raise a fist in the air, it looks less like the defiant punch of striking workers or a Black Power salute than like the stance of a straphanger, pendant and insecure. They approximate ethereal ballet steps and point at the stars, but all the reaching quickly retracts or deflates, as if in embarrassment.

There’s a cracking sound like a gunshot, and a dancer falls. Then another and another. It doesn’t matter whether the performers try to be moving targets, hoping someone else will be chosen, or offer themselves as sacrifices. The slaughter is random (except that it isn’t — the choreographer is the invisible killer). Before long, everyone joins together in a new unison: the stillness of death. Video projections (by Nadir Bouassria) outline each body in bloodlike pools of blue.

Eventually, the dancers rise and take on yet another kind of unison, all mouthing a single disembodied voice: Doherty’s. Her speech (written with Bush Moukarzel) floats a premise of futurity and cosmic distance — she thanks the audience for traveling 4.5 billion years to see a show; Jamie xx’s score supplies electronic anomie — yet it is clearly a lockdown rant.

Doherty wallows in human insignificance (each of us is “a pale blue dot on a pale blue dot”). She lists historical villains and violent events as if doomscrolling. She indicts herself, itemizing the costs of the production. “What’s the point?” she asks.

This rant, with its questions about the meaning of art and the meaning of life, is somewhat adolescent in tone. That impression is heightened by the movement that accompanies it: purposely messier, driven more by feeling than form. Some dancers are able to focus this better than others.

Yet “Navy Blue” remains compelling. While it lacks Doherty’s physical presence, her unguarded charisma and authenticity come through in her voice in an unstable mix of ambition and humility. After her 2015 breakout solo, “Hope Hunt and the Ascension Into Lazarus,” her career rocketed at a speed that must have felt vertiginous and doubt inducing. She’s expressed as much in interviews. Her ambivalence about her career comes through, sublimated and not, in her art. “What’s the point?” is her continual question, and it finds resonant form in “Navy Blue.”

“Look again,” Doherty keeps saying in her rant, as much to herself as to the audience. She’s looking for a way out. She arrives, with a rueful laugh, at gratitude for “the importance of being unimportant” and the admonition that “we must love one another and die.” Onstage, a cathartically flailing solo, like the Chosen One’s dance of death in “The Rite of Spring,” is followed by a group hug.

The hope that gesture is trying to convey isn’t all that convincing. She’s still hunting for hope, and that makes her an artist to watch.

Oona Doherty: Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater, Manhattan; joyce.org.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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