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Tangled up in Blue

The show starts outside the theater. A car, with its right rear window busted out, pulls up, music blaring, bass turned up. A burly, formidable man exits the driver’s seat, opens the trunk, and props himself casually against the passenger-side door. From the trunk, Sati Veyrunes emerges. Veyrunes is small, spunky, and elfin—she parts the crowd as she begins to perform, channeling the music as though possessed. Veyrunes holds tension in her body almost like electricity—she melds with the beat like one does at 2 am, surrounded by strangers, everything enhanced by a (perhaps synthetic) euphoria. At times, Veyrunes’ eyes roll back in their sockets, her eyelids flickering, as though the music and the movement are allowing her to transcend her earthly body.

Performance

Oona Doherty/OD Works in “Hope Hunt and the Ascension into Lazarus“ and “Navy Blue”

Place

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, Mass., July, 30, 2023

Words

Sophie Bress

Sati Veyrunes and John Gunning in “Hope Hunt and the Ascension into Lazarus” with Oona Doherty OD Works at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. Photograph by Becca Marcela Oviatt.

Suddenly, the man is back in the car, honking the horn, parting the crowd. As he drives away, Veyrunes is shaken from her reverie with cries of “Wait! Stop!” as she chases after him.

This is how Oona Doherty’s Jacob’s Pillow debut opens. Doherty is the venerable dance festival’s first headlining artist from Northern Ireland. She’s been hailed by The Guardian as “one of the most exciting choreographers of her generation,” and her collaborations with British DJ and producer Jamie xx have garnered recognition in both the dance and music spheres. Doherty’s July 26-30 run at the Pillow featured two works, her 2016 “Hope Hunt and the Ascension into Lazarus,” performed by Veyrunes, and US premiere of her 2022 opus “Navy Blue.” 

As the audience enters the theater, music is still pulsing—the air feels charged, powerful. Veyrunes moves through the aisles, seemingly occupying a different plain, unaware of the patrons taking their seats. The lights dim and she emerges once again, this time on a sparse stage, adorned only by a pile of garbage in one upstage corner. 

Sati Veyrunes in “Hope Hunt and the Ascension into Lazarus” by Oona Doherty. Photograph by Becca Marcela Oviatt

The first work on the program (and a solo for Veyrunes), “Hope Hunt and the Ascension into Lazarus,” is an interplay between choreography and spoken word. Sounds morph into words, which morph into other words: “da” becomes a childlike cry for Da, which becomes “duh,” which becomes “deaf.” “Chaos” becomes a bellowing chant of “Chelsea! Chelsea! Chelsea!” 

Movement-wise, the work melds pedestrian action with tension—Veyrunes is effortlessly in control of each individual atom of her body. Her facial expressions, too, add a layer of meaning, showing joy, sorrow, guilt, mischievousness. In many dance performances, the face is an afterthought—as an expression of concentration seeps through a thin veneer, or a smile is plastered on like a mask. But throughout “Hope Hunt and the Ascension into Lazarus,” facial expressions are the impetus of movement, with arms and legs simply following suit.

“Hope Hunt” feels like a peek into someone else’s mind—in all its turmoil and unlikely hope. It explores the things that set us free, and the things that keep us trapped, and—hearkening back to the religiosity of its title—the ways we can rise above. 

Oona Doherty OD Works in “Navy Blue” at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. Photograph by Jamie Kraus.

The second work, “Navy Blue,” builds upon “Hope Hunt” — Doherty’s signatures become apparent. Facial expressions, once again, are an inextricable element that drives both plot and choreography. Spoken word is also used, not just as pseudo-music, but to really drive meaning. Doherty’s gritty sensibilities, too, are present—she’s not shy about going to extremes, or taking a hard look at things it might feel easier to look away from. 

The first half of “Navy Blue,” which is set primarily to Sergei Rachmanioff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and an original score by Jamie xx, weaves balletic motions—classic center exercises from any ballet class—with expressions of exhaustion, repetition and heaviness that give the feeling of drudgery, of being a cog in a wheel. The section ends with dancers, one by one, falling to the ground after the sound of gunshots pierces the air. Soon, the dancers blanket the floor, each lit with a blue light that flows from their chests, their blue blood spreading until it covers the stage.  

Repeatedly throughout the work, the dancers form a line at the front of the stage, lined up according to height. First, they stare at the audience as a whole, beseeching, almost accusatory. Then, as the work progresses and the music becomes dominated by the ambient, yet charged, electronic sounds of Jamie xx’s score, a spoken word overlay makes it feel that each of the dancers in this lineup are talking just to you.

Kinda Gozo in “Navy Blue” with Oona Doherty OD Works at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. Photograph by Becca Marcela Oviatt.

“Look at that dancer,” the spoken word urges, explaining that that dancer is simultaneously you, them, and everyone you know. Another common refrain is “a pale blue dot on a pale blue dot,” referring, once again to you, them, and everyone you know. At another point, the voice also plainly outlines the budget of producing “Navy Blue,” broken down by each individual expense. This jarring admission breaks the fourth wall in a way that is so brutally honest, one gets the feeling that Doherty, too, is along for the “Navy Blue” ride.

In an era of social unrest and political polarization, many dance makers are using their craft to shine light on social issues. Doherty’s “Navy Blue” grapples not just with one or two issues, but with everything, including—and most poignantly of all—existence itself. Doherty, who is in her mid-thirties, captures the existential dread that many members of the younger generation are experiencing, a feeling of powerlessness as our lives and destinies seem to be defined by things that are out of our personal control.“ Navy Blue” ends as the dancers join together in an embrace, leaving us with the dichotomy that, while nothing matters and we’re all but a blip on the timeline, everything also simultaneously matters very much. 

Sophie Bress


Sophie Bress is an arts and culture journalist based in Salt Lake City, Utah. In her writing, she focuses on placing the arts within our cultural conversations and recognizing art makers as essential elements of our societal framework. Sophie holds a Master’s degree from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. She has been published in Dance Magazine, L.A. Dance Chronicle, The Argonaut, Festival Advisor, and more.

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