Navy Blue, the colour of workers’ overalls is an existential cry of protest, a dance/voice-over/visual performance choreographed by Oona Doherty and cast to Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and a ‘dread’ electronic soundtrack by Jamie xx. As ever her work is hugely ambitious, taking on explosive topics: the dehumanising of capitalism, world violence, saving the planet with an almost messianic fervour and not least critiquing the oppressive world of ballet. However, sadly in this piece her choreographic skills let her down.
Doherty has much more to give choreographically
That said, Doherty’s work is always fascinating. The depth of her sincerity shines through and she speaks to her generation in the same way spoken-word Kae Tempest does. The fact that choreographically Doherty’s work is limited is almost not to the point. She fell into public view, literally falling out of the boot of a car and landing on the cobbles outside Dance Base during the Edinburgh Fringe (2015) where her Hope Hunt and The Ascension of Lazarus gained her fiive stars for the visceral shock of her work. The spiritual underpinning of her work was already apparent. Since then her meteoric rise to fame in the world of contemporary dance led to Hard to be Soft: a Belfast Prayer which I saw at the Edinburgh International Festival (2017) but it was apparent the move from small to large stage was not yet in her grasp as she made little use of the space.
This is a fault she has more than rectified in Navy Blue plus her use of ecstatic classical music (previously the Miserere by Allegri in Ascension to Lazarus) and here the uplifting Rachmaninov contrasting with the later ‘dread’ and extraordinary visual effects filling the stage, described below.
Starting with the 12 dancers all in blue overalls in a line, where they turn their heads from side to side, or make small movements such as wriggling their fingers, the ensemble mimics ballet de corps, even performing bourrées (quick movements on the toes, although they do not wear pointe shoes and their feet are not turned out as in ballet) and their lines are not quite as regimented, revealing a glimpse of the dancers’ humanity. As they run across the stage, one or another dancer gets left behind, suggesting the punishing insistence on conformity. One dancer makes a sign of the cross, so brief, many of the audience might not catch it. It gets worse when perhaps evoking Netflix’s sadistic Squid Game shots are fired and the dancers are picked off one by one for their presumed failures. Perhaps we did not need to hear the shots fired?
This lack of subtlety is more than compensated for by the stunning visual effect of a darkened stage and then blue light suggesting blood leaching out from each of the fallen bodies. Designed by Nadir Bouassria, the blue light continues to flow slowly, slowly until it almost fills the stage, suggesting maybe this flooded planet or the ‘pale blue dot’ coined by the astronomer Carl Sagan. The blue light is a powerful, affecting image which demonstrates Doherty’s extraordinary vision, speaking to us even more strongly than the voice-over rant co-written with Bush Moukarzel, that follows. Where it riffs on the ‘pale blue dot’ it achieves the status of spoken-word poetry but too much is a list of names of tyrants and world atrocities. Not only does it go on and on, but the technical sound quality was so blurred it was hard to make out more than a few words. But perhaps that was a blessing. I caught enough to get the idea: Hitler, the death of George Floyd, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. This depressing list is enlivened by the amusing itemising of her production costs including childcare (perhaps the first time this has been incorporated in a dance) and her questioning of the value of dance and the arts. ‘What’s it all for?’ Most effective was the plea, a prayer in fact: ‘Thank the Lord for our insignificance.’
A solo dance at the end of the show of a male flailing his arms and kicking out in frenzied repetitious moves is extraordinary, and then this despairing show ends with a flicker of hope as there is a group hug suggesting that the ills of the world can only be solved by caring for each other. This solo also demonstrates that Doherty has much more to give choreographically. It is not surprising that she was awarded the Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2021. They could see, as we can in her work so far, that she is a rare, talented and original artist who maybe could just change the world, if not the world of dance, given time.