Oona Doherty: ‘I wasn’t the best dancer in the class. My ego couldn’t handle it’

The last time I saw Oona Doherty, she was rolling out of a car boot in east London, nervily hitching up tracksuit bottoms, hair slicked like a close crop, transmitting wiry masculinity. It was a performance, called Hope Hunt and the Ascension Into Lazarus, that burrowed into the persona of the mouthy, sometimes maligned, working-class male. And it was a character she so completely embodied it was hard to imagine it wasn’t part of her.

But the woman on my laptop screen could not look more different: blond bob, big smile, just dropped her toddler off at nursery, tasteful grey walls in the background of her living room in Bangor, a seaside town near Belfast. As a performer, she has that ability to dissolve the membrane between herself and her character. And in person there is the same sense of being quick to connect, unguarded and without artifice, funny and sweary in a hybrid accent that betrays her move from north London to Northern Ireland aged 10.

Doherty, 36, has risen quickly to be dance’s next big thing on the back of two works, the aforementioned Hope Hunt and Hard to Be Soft, the Guardian’s top dance show of 2019. An ode to the strength and vulnerability of Belfast’s people, Hard to Be Soft featured what Doherty called a Sugar Army of teenage girls in bomber jackets, and a moving duet for two wobbly bellied men. It was full of raw originality leaving audiences eager to see what would come next.

What’s next is Navy Blue, getting its UK premiere at London’s Dance Umbrella festival. Doherty does not want to give much away. It features 12 dancers (she’s choreographed it but doesn’t appear herself), who start out looking like a conventional dance company. “So the first part is that: you came to see a dance show? I’m gonna fucking give you a dance show. Happy now?!” she laughs. Doherty was interested in the idea of unison. “When you get 12 people to move in complete unison that is just relentless compromise and sacrifice. All different intentions, length of leg, how far you’re going to jump, all compromises going on for the greater good of the group.”

Musicians show up late and work all night. That’s very cool, but I need to do my pilates

Viewers may see that as a comment on communism or contemporary society or the conformity of the corps de ballet. “It’ll be what you think it is when you see it,” she says, knowing that everyone brings their own context.

From there on in, though, you can expect things to unravel on stage. Doherty calls Navy Blue “a very cruel piece”: there will certainly be bodies lying in pools of blood on the floor, and the word she kept telling her musical collaborator Jamie Smith, AKA Jamie xx, to evoke was “dread”. Doherty had already made a video for the xx member and producer’s track Idontknow (he got in touch with her after seeing Hope Hunt). She had started choreographing Navy Blue to Rachmaninoff, so when she rang Smith she asked him to “rewrite Rachmaninoff. And he was like: ‘Yeah, class. I’ll do a piano concerto, that would be amazing!’ But then you put the phone down and Jamie remembers that he’s a really famous DJ who’s on a world tour and doesn’t even have time to come into the studio.” In the end she kept the Rachmaninoff at the start, and Jamie created the more dystopian end of the soundtrack. She kept telling him she needed that sound of dread, “and Jamie is a very joyful musician”, she says. “He goes towards polyrhythm and crazy textures, and every time he sent through a track I was like: ‘Take the beat out. Take the high notes out.’” She’s not sure what Smith thinks of it all. “He’s very quiet, so I have no idea. He’ll just be like: ‘Yeah, cool.’ He could be happy or raging, who knows? But he did a good job.”

If Smith was shy, quietly getting on with what he was told, Doherty’s musical collaborator on Hard to Be Soft, the celebrated Belfast DJ-producer David Holmes, was the opposite. “David Holmes, that’s a whole other beast. Alpha, alpha, alpha!” she laughs. “David Holmes will tell you what you’re doing wrong. He’s in his really cool house, he’s got his own studio, he’s drinking wine and smoking fags. ‘How many counts? What instruments?’ And I’m explaining Hard to Be Soft to him: ‘It’s about, like, limbo …” and he’s like, ‘What the fuck does that mean? Is it piano or electronic?’”

Music is always a driver for her work. “You’re going to hate me for saying it, but music is the highest art form. Higher than dancing. And we shouldn’t say that because we’re fighting for a tiny cut of the old Arts Council pie, and I know some choreographers work in silence, the mad bastards, but as a choreographer you could do your whole career as a bow to say thanks to music.”

Related: Oona Doherty: ‘I’m so blessed, but I don’t have a clue what’s going on’

I wonder if she feels closer to music culture than the dance industry. “I’d love to think of myself like that but I’ve realised I’m nothing like them,” she says. “Contemporary dancers are so organised. Everything is booked a year in advance and we have an info sheet and know where the hotel is. The musicians I’ve worked with, they text you on Instagram and organise the project a week before it happens. Musicians show up late and they work all night. That’s very cool, but I need to do my warm-up before the dancers arrive, and my pilates. I’m a geek dancer; I’m really into the geek dancer vibe.”

Doherty has spoken before about her hard-partying years and getting kicked out of dance conservatoire in London (“I was taking too many drugs,” she says. “I wasn’t the best in the class any more and my ego couldn’t handle it”), but she really is a dance geek at heart, ever since joining an after-school club at 11. “I was in school an hour early to do dancing, and I stayed in school two hours late after school, and I’d be dancing on the lunch break.” After her blowout, she picked up her studies again and performed in Europe mainly with the Dutch company Trash, known for out-there, highly physical work. It’s all fed into her own dance one way or another, even the drugs and their shortcut to intense sensations (“Have you experienced ketamine, to really understand gravity?”), and given her a unique voice.

Yet even for a choreographer lauded as the future of their art form, it’s a precarious living, especially now she is the mother of an 18-month-old. She made a film when pregnant called The Devil, its horror vibe in tune with her thoughts on early motherhood. “It’s just so fucking hardcore: it’s dirty, the sleep deprivation, the pain, cleaning sick off the floor at 4am, and still smiling and saying yes and getting it done and still going to Tesco … ”

Her infant daughter went with her when she made Navy Blue, but now she says, “I think I need to move to France to be able to be a choreographer and have a kid”, and she’s not really joking. “I’ve never made a work in Ireland. There’s nowhere to make it and there’s no money to make it. All the co-producers come from Europe.” She has a free studio in the Presbyterian church down the street in the mornings, which she needs for her mental health as much as anything: “I go a bit mad if not – I need to be sweating every day to be normal.”

We talk about choreographers supplementing stage work with commercial moneymaking. She was asked to do an advert in lockdown. “They were like: just fly in tomorrow, do it on the rooftop and fly back. It would have paid for my kitchen.” But pregnancy and Covid stopped her going. Still, she has another plan. Everywhere she performs Hard to Be Soft she trains a group of local teenage girls to perform as the Sugar Army. Now there are close to 200 spirited young women all over Europe who’ve worn those bomber jackets. She wants to bring them all back to Belfast to do one massive Sugar Army performance in front of Stormont. “And that should be an Adidas advert!” she laughs. “If you’re going to sell out, sell out big.”

Navy Blue is at Sadler’s Wells, London, 21 & 22 October; The Devil can be seen as part of Dance Umbrella’s digital programme. danceumbrella.co.uk