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Review: Dancing That Unfolds Like a Prayer

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The choreographer Oona Doherty grasps that in everybody — and in every body — there is a point of tension between hard and soft, tough and vulnerable, pleasure and pain. For all their posturing, her characters, anonymous working-class youth from Belfast, ache. And while her movement language creates an exacting physical entity, transcendence comes through an inner battle: fighting the hard to find the soft.

In “Hard to Be Soft — A Belfast Prayer,” inspired by the city she grew up in, Doherty explores the trauma caused by the Troubles, which lasted around 30 years. Unfolding in four sections, the work, tenacious yet ethereal, begins and ends with shape-shifting solos in which Doherty embodies young men from Belfast — with an air of machismo, she snarls a lip, digs her hands deep into her pockets and stands stooped, her back curling into its pelvis. She takes a few steps, a sauntering kind of stroll known locally as a dander.

But gradually, as her mannerisms evaporate, she becomes more than a macho body. She has described “Hard to Be Soft” as a physical prayer, and moments have an otherworldly effect: What is trapping her? What is trying to escape? It’s the soul, the essence of a spirit.

With the opening tableau featuring wafting incense, the theater — the newly renovated Irish Arts Center — even smelled like a church. (It was the first dance performance in the space, but that still didn’t warrant 20 minutes of monotonous speeches.) The score, by the electronic musician and composer David Holmes, had a liturgical feel as choral music mingled with voice-overs that capture the sound of chaotic street life.

In the score, fights erupt as Doherty — her blond hair slicked back in a small bun, a gold chain bouncing against her chest — crumbles and rises from the floor as if floating between a dream and a nightmare. All the while, the lighting gives the set, essentially a tall white cage that opens on one side, a haunting, angelic glow. Is it heaven or purgatory?

And is Doherty laughing or crying? Doherty has an uncanny ability to quiet her features so abruptly that, suddenly, her face can become as still and peaceful as eyes staring out at you from an icon. The way she uses her eyes is one of the most arresting things about her — sometimes they gleam brightly; sometimes they’re dead.

A blackout gives way to the second section, in which a female voice-over talks about overcoming the “tragedy in the walls” by dressing “it up with glamour because we have to make light of tragedy.”

For the women of Belfast, she says, looking good is a form of armor. It’s also empowering. Eight young women from Young Dancemakers Company swirl into the space, circling the stage as if marking territory with forthright, punctuated steps to a steady percussive beat. Wearing black leggings and bright satin jackets, they are boldly defiant. Doherty calls them the Sugar Army for a reason. (To fill their ranks, she finds local dancers in each city she tours.)

Inspired by the girls she went to school with in Belfast who, as she wrote in the performance publication Draff, practiced disco dancing for competitions, Doherty’s strident, tough army echoes her memory of them: “Wiping sexuality and shapes out into space like weapons.”

Here, perhaps, they needed more stage time to discover how to draw their individual power into a shimmering unit. One of the most tender moments comes when they break apart, laughing and falling over one another to convey the innocence of women in the making — some there, others on the cusp.

In the third section, John Scott, a veteran Dublin choreographer, and Sam Finnegan — both bare chested, with protruding bellies — slowly make their way to the center of the stage like sumo wrestlers. A voice-over hints at the relationship of father and son. An embrace soon becomes more tense, more loaded — one pushes, the other pulls — as the way they use their weight and flesh (again, locating the tension between soft and hard) hints at grief, at conflict. When Scott briefly cups the back of Finnegan’s head, we see not just love but the anguish of it.

Physically, “Hard to Be Soft” wasn’t a great fit for the Irish Arts Center theater. It seemed cramped and sightlines were spotty for both the opening solo and the duet, much of which took place at the lip of the stage. But the final solo, in which Doherty enters with a hard fall onto the stage, was glittering.

Performing again as a young Belfast man, she gradually slips between distress and calm — a kind of resignation — as flickering memories take over her body and the sound of melancholic strings fills the air. Doherty echoes moments of her first solo as she patiently paints the story of a man’s life through a dance. Or is it a physical prayer? In “Hard to Be Soft,” it feels like the same thing.

Hard to Be Soft — A Belfast Prayer

Through Jan. 23 at the Irish Arts Center; irishartscenter.org



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On ‘S.N.L.,’ Biden Urges Covid-Weary Nation to Stop Seeing ‘Spider-Man’

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Spider-Man just finished saving the very fabric of reality, but to hear President Biden tell it — at least on “Saturday Night Live” — the wall-crawler is the one to blame for the continuing pandemic.

To kick off the first new “S.N.L.” of 2022, James Austin Johnson returned in his recurring role as Biden for a news conference in which he told the nation that “there’s one simple thing you can do to make this whole virus go away: Stop seeing ‘Spider-Man.’”

Addressing the White House press corps in the show’s opening sketch, Johnson said: “This virus has disrupted our lives. It’s canceled holidays, weddings, quinceañeras, gender-reveal parties, wildfires that started as gender-reveal parties.”

He went on to say: “Now, think about it. When did ‘Spider-Man’ come out? Dec. 17. When did every single person get Omicron? The week after Dec. 17.”

The last time “S.N.L.” attempted a live episode, on Dec. 18, it was significantly disrupted by the pandemic. Hours before airtime, NBC announced that because of Covid concerns, the show would not use a live audience; the broadcast was missing most of the cast members, had no musical guest and consisted mostly of pretaped segments and sketches from past episodes.

“S.N.L.” was not spared the intrusion of the coronavirus this week. On Wednesday, the rapper Roddy Ricch, who was originally announced as the musical guest, said on his Instagram account that he would be unable to perform because of “recent COVID exposure on my team and to keep everyone safe.” Instead, the pop band Bleachers took his place.

In the Biden sketch, Johnson explained that he was not asking people to avoid the movies altogether. “I said, stop seeing ‘Spider-Man,’” he declared in reference to “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which has shattered Covid-era box-office records.

“See anything else,” he continued. “I saw the first half-hour of ‘House of Gucci.’ That’s more than enough movie for anyone.”

Questioned about the lack of available Covid testing, Johnson’s Biden answered, “You want to know if you have Covid? Look at your hand. Is it holding a ticket that says you recently went to see ‘Spider-Man’? If so, you have Covid.”

As Johnson started to expound on the existence of the multiverse, he was visited by a shirtless, white-haired Pete Davidson, who explained that he was Joe Biden “from the real universe,” and that this incarnation of reality had been created “as a joke, starting in 2016 when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series.”

When Johnson asked him if he was the president in this real world, Davidson answered: “Of course not. Did you really think you would lose four times and then finally win when you were 78?”

When you’ve got an “S.N.L.” episode hosted by Ariana DeBose, a star of Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake and a newly-minted Golden Globe winner, you know you’re going to have a couple of sketches that pay affectionate tribute to musical theater.

The first of the night was DeBose’s opening monologue, during which she was joined by Kate McKinnon, who professed that “West Side Story” was her favorite musical.

“Did you like the movie?” DeBose asked her. “I didn’t see it,” McKinnon replied. “I don’t leave the house because of Covid and also because I don’t leave the house.” They gamely sang a medley of several “West Side Story” numbers together, including “Tonight” and “I Feel Pretty,” though McKinnon sat out the mambo dance break: “They know I dance,” she said.

Later in the night, the two re-teamed for a “Sound of Music” parody in which McKinnon delivered a deft Julie Andrews impression. DeBose played another wayward woman from Maria’s convent who tries to teach a group of children to sing, with an updated version of “Do-Re-Mi” that’s unexpectedly heavy on references to Queen Latifah. Eat your heart out, Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Earlier this week, when NBC’s Peacock streaming service dropped the trailer for “Bel-Air,” a gritty, dramatic retelling of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” some viewers wondered if it was an “S.N.L.” sketch.

It wasn’t, but that didn’t stop “S.N.L.” from going forward with this satirical preview for an unnecessarily harsh reboot of another 90s-era sitcom, “Family Matters.” In this incarnation, Carl Winslow (Kenan Thompson) is a sadistic Chicago cop and the lovably nerdy Steve Urkel (Chris Redd) now has an abusive, drunken mom and a violent temper. You’ll never hear the catchphrase “Did I do that?” in quite the same way again.

Over at the Weekend Update desk, the anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che continued to riff on President Biden’s stalled agenda.

Jost began:

Just like everybody else, President Biden’s New Year’s resolutions fell apart in the third week of January. The Supreme Court struck down his vaccine mandate. The voting rights bill got blocked. And his approval rating is so low, it’s gone into power-save mode. But I will point out, there was another president who had a disastrous start to his first term, yet he became an inspiration to generations of Republicans, even to this day. [The screen shows a picture of Ronald Reagan.] I’m talking of course about Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. [The picture changes to one of Davis.]

“And there are still statues of him in 10 different states,” Jost continued:

Which, come to think of it, probably explains why the voting rights stuff isn’t working out. The bottom line is, I think Biden just needs more time. He might be more of an acquired taste. Unfortunately, most Americans recently lost their sense of taste.

Che picked up on the Biden thread:

President Biden gave a speech in Atlanta where he called on the Senate to pass two voting rights bills, saying, “I am tired of being quiet.” And to prove it, he took a 20-minute standing nap.



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Rosa Lee Hawkins, Youngest Member of the Dixie Cups, Dies at 76

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Rosa Lee Hawkins, the youngest member of the musical trio the Dixie Cups, whose hit single “Chapel of Love” reached No. 1 on the Billboard 100 in 1964, died on Tuesday in Tampa, Fla. She was 76.

The cause was internal bleeding resulting from complications during surgery at Tampa General Hospital, said her sister Barbara Ann Hawkins, who was also a member of the group, along with Joan Marie Johnson, who died in 2016 at 72.

The Dixie Cups epitomized the harmonizing sound of the 1960s girl group. “Chapel of Love,” their debut single and most well-known song, quickly replaced the Beatles’ “Love Me Do” as No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1964. It was later heard on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam War film, “Full Metal Jacket.”

Rosa Lee Hawkins was born on Oct. 23, 1945, in New Orleans to Hartzell Hawkins, a self-employed carpenter, and Lucille (Merette) Hawkins, a state worker who registered voters.

While in high school in 1963, Barbara brought Rosa along to sing with her and Joan Marie in a high school talent show. The trio initially called themselves the Meltones, only to discover later that the name had already been taken. Since they were from the land of Dixie, and “cups are cute,” Barbara said in an interview, they came up with the name Dixie Cups (playing on the name of the popular paper cup).

Joan later discovered that the Hawkins sisters were actually her cousins.

While they did not win the talent show, a talent scout in the audience, impressed by their rich harmonies, invited the group, along with other Louisiana musicians, to perform for Red Bird Records. The Dixie Cups sang “Iko Iko,” a song that was traditionally sung during Mardi Gras and that was a favorite of the Hawkins sisters’ grandmother. They signed a recording contract soon after.

The Dixie Cups received two Gold Records, for “Chapel of Love” and another hit, “People Say.” They were inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2007.

The group recorded a total of four albums, their last in 2011. Ms. Johnson, ill with sickle-cell anemia and weary from touring, left the group and was replaced by a number of singers through the years. The Hawkins sisters remained, though, and kept singing just as they did in high school, with harmonies as vibrant as ever.

“When the audience smiled and applauded, it made her happy because she knew she put a smile on their faces, if only for that time,” Barbara said of her younger sister.

In addition to Barbara, Ms. Hawkins is survived by another sister, Shirley; a son, Eric Blanc; and two grandchildren.



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John Bowman, Comedy Writer With a Knack for Crossing Over, Dies at 64

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John Frederick Bowman was born on Sept. 28, 1957, in Milwaukee. His father, William, was a lawyer, and his mother, Loretta (Murphy) Bowman, was a homemaker.

White attending Harvard as an undergraduate, Mr. Bowman was an editor at The Harvard Lampoon. He graduated from Harvard Business School in 1985 and became an executive at PepsiCo, based in Purchase, N.Y., before deciding that what he really wanted to do was work in comedy.

At the time, his wife was writing for “Saturday Night Live.”

“I told Jim that my husband wasn’t happy at PepsiCo and he wanted to do this,” Ms. Gaughan Bowman said, referring to Jim Downey, the longtime “S.N.L.” head writer.

It was a big leap from a corporate job to the “S.N.L.” writers’ room, but Mr. Downey, a former president of The Lampoon, had mined the magazine for writers and was familiar with Mr. Bowman through his writing and through mutual friends. He asked Mr. Bowman to submit sketches; he was hired a year later.

“He had the best dry sense of humor of almost anyone I’ve ever worked with,” Mr. Downey said by phone. In his only season with the show, Mr. Bowman shared a 1989 Emmy Award with the rest of the writing staff.

He went on to be the showrunner in the mid-1990s for “Murphy Brown,” starring Candice Bergen.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Bowman is survived by his daughter, Courtney Bowman Brady; his sons, Nicholas, Alec, Jesse and John Jr.; a sister, Susan Bowman; and two brothers, William and James.



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