Earlier this year, young people across the UK – including Cardiff – took part in a dance-centric Sky Arts film for the ongoing Fly The Flag project, which this year honours the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights’ Article 19 (Freedom of Expression). Partnered, among others, with the Wales Millennium Centre, celebrated choreographer Oona Doherty – creator of Haka-influenced dance Sugar Army – tells Hannah Collins how the film came together under her and a number of other teachers and dancers’ tutelage in each of the four nations.
Where does the name Sugar Army come from?
It’s from the original routine for the teenage girls I work with, based on a kind of abstracted image I had of my school. I went to St. Louise’s comprehensive school in Belfast – I was born in London and moved there when I was 10, so I went to one of the biggest all-girls Catholic schools with a London accent! [laughs] I started dancing there and with a group called the Ground Bombers.
When you have your little kilt and your white tights – the uniform of a Catholic schoolgirl – there’s an idea of sweetness to it. The reality is that we’re pulling each other’s hair out. Then you mix those memories with nowadays, teenagers with Instagram and that kind of Botox face – not that there are actually getting Botox, but there’s a type of Barbie phase that has returned; a two-dimensional beauty that’s come back. Kids that I see now with the way they look and the way they dress and the way they behave with social media… Something has quietened down in them because they’re in public all the time and because of their phones.
So I was looking at that and then looking at the New Zealand All Blacks’ Haka, and I was like, they need a bit of that: they need to know that their power is also within the grotesque, not stuck in one image. So with Sugar, it was kind of like building a new sweet army.
This project is about celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 19. What does that mean to you?
My first response when they gave me the Article – the original blueprint of what the project would be – was to go off on a tangent about microphones, that some people’s microphones in society are at a higher volume than other’s people’s. And that’s why the idea was to go to diverse teenagers: new Scots who just arrived from Los Cabos in Scotland and were put in the highlands, kids in Wales who were from a religious background, trans teenagers in London… You don’t hear from them so much, especially in a political kind of conversation and of that age group. I think that [idea of] freedom of expression pushed me immediately to be like, I’m very tired of listening to the same people express themselves, which are people like me: the leftist elite, white, super privileged, went to art school, you know.
On that note, what was it like working with young people from across the four nations? Did you find that where they were in the UK affected their responses to the brief?
Because I’d just had a kid I couldn’t go to Wales, Scotland and England. But I know a lot of amazing dancers and choreographers, so I tried to choose people to send [in my place] that I knew gave a shit about [human] rights rather than aesthetics. Those are the people who worked one-on-one every day with the kids while I kind of took a back seat. I was there for the Belfast shoot so I know [their responses] through the film and through talking to the teachers involved. And actually, a lot of the conversations that they were having came were very similar – except for the Belfast group because they were aged 12. The age ranges in London and Cardiff were older: 18 to early 20s, and they had dance experience.
The conversations they were having were very eloquent. London even more so because we had a few kids of colour in there, which just brightens the conversation. There was one white guy in Cardiff – the only guy in [the] Cardiff [group] – who was like, “I’m white and privileged.” But that was his chat. It’s interesting what they’re seeing and reading and where they place themselves within society. And with the younger kids, it’s funny to hear them shout taglines they must have got from Twitter or Facebook: ‘gay rights,’ ‘Black Lives Matter,’ etc. It seems sweet because they’re not physically close to those issues and yet they think it’s important to say it in the movie.
Each generation is going to have more and more access to the wider world so it’s interesting seeing how it’s affecting them in both positive and negative ways. And that kind of feeds into the theme of this year’s Fly The Flag – the rights of young people in the UK. I’m curious about what the creative process was in trying to express that theme.
My plan was to teach them the Sugar Army routine every morning, but that was just to get them all to work together. I mean, there are messages within the Sugar Army routine, but it was more a bonding exercise for this project. There’s something about it that just levels the playing field when everybody’s in a room at 10am, sweating together. It changes the atmosphere so you can start having conversations that might be awkward if everyone just sat down in a circle first thing.
I was really just there to explain how you can have ideas and then put them into movement. We did movement ‘tasks’ about community, politics and about how systems work. They wrote poems down about a time where you felt really empowered because larger issues are more understandable if you think of them in the day to day. You know, what are the human rights [issues] going on in your street – are people waiting for housing? Are there homeless people?
Did it feel difficult on the backdrop of Brexit, COVID and the other issues you’ve touched on to make something celebratory?
No, not at all. If you spend just one or two days with these kids – they’re full of life and positivity. The challenge was actually ‘how can we get a bit of shite reality in here?’ because it was too hopeful. I wanted that balance of yin and yang. And that’s why I’m pushing for them to be able to meet again as part of a legacy for the Fly The Flag project. It wasn’t problematic in a COVID or Brexit way, the problem was we needed more time and money.
Why do you think dance and movement lend themselves to expressing ideas like these?
It’s an interesting question because I don’t know if it’s the most hard-hitting medium you could use. But I feel like you can trust it. There’s a sincerity that I think is more dependable than other things. And then the flipside of dancing is that when you come down to the basic science of it, it releases serotonin; it helps your joints, your muscles, your gut and your mental health. So, whatever you’re dealing with, it can be a healthy way of processing stuff.
I just went to Kevin Bacon in Footloose as soon as you said that.
It makes me think of Billy Elliot! But it does work as a release, dancing – it’s better than sinking a pint, anyway, because it actually releases the anger rather than swallowing it.
What should we expect the finished product to look like? What do you want people to take away from it?
We tried to make it as cinematic as possible: so you’ll see images of forests in Scotland, a Union Jack in Belfast, someone sweating at a bus stop in London… But then there are these vignettes of each kid, presented as a hero, speaking over the top of their dancing about what they think freedom of expression is and how it relates to their everyday lives and what they think is going to happen in the future. And the whole film builds up to meeting these characters, these ‘heroes’ in Britain until it reaches the final scene, which is the Sugar Army routine. It also cuts between the four nations during the routine, which unites them in fighting for a hopeful future. Amen.
Fly The Flag is directed by Charlie Di Placido and features music by David Holmes and Andy Scott. Rosie Marlin (Northern Ireland) Jade Adamson (Scotland) Michael McAvoy (Wales) and Carl Harrison (England) also collaborated with Oona Doherty on the project.
Fly the Flag premieres Fri 10 Dec (Human Rights Day) on Sky Arts. Info here.
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