The Body is the Frontline

Rosie Kay Dance Company will tour their award-winning production 5 Soldiers across Scotland from 29 April to 21 May.

A moving, dramatic and unique work that looks at how the human body remains essential to war, even in the 21st Century, the piece provides an intimate view of the training that prepares soldiers for the sheer physicality of combat, the possibility of injury and the impact conflict has on the bodies and minds of everyone it touches.

We found out more from choreographer and director, Rosie Kay…

5 Soldiers. Photo: Colin Hattersley 

What can audiences expect from 5 Soldiers?

I wanted to create a show that has an embodied effect on the audience, humanising something that’s very dehumanized, very politicised. I hope audiences walk away with a changed understanding of what it might feel like to be in the situation we portray, and through the dancers’ very visceral physicality feel a closeness to, and can empathise with, the reality of soldiers’ everyday life.

The production is a careful balance between a strong sense of authenticity and its theatricality. The authenticity comes from the observation and semblance of military details, such as drills or physical training (PT). We had to get the detail right because meticulous attention to detail is part of that world. If we were lazy about it and got it wrong, we’d lose half our audience straight away! For theatricality, I wanted to find a way to get across the emotion and the poetry, and even beauty that the soldiers described of their world and their experiences. The whole show I think works because of the tension between authenticity and theatricality, between turning the reality into dance, and by allowing the dance to tell us more about the people behind the reality.

It's quite a stripped back and simple set, just five soldiers, in uniform, their berghans (military rucksacks) and eight tyres. The soldiers are confined in a pen-like set, almost a boxing arena. We use video projection to enhance the visceral effect, from military computer data read outs, to footage from flights over war zones. There are a couple of props, but ultimately the show is the soldiers and their bodies. The music is incredible, I've worked with composer Annie Mahtani for over ten years now and she creates a hypnotic sound score that weaves electroacoustic sounds (from drones, aircraft, bird song) with Katy Perry, The Clash and Pergolesi's Stabat Mater.

What was the inspiration behind the piece?

Back in in December 2006 I suffered a serious knee injury while performing. I was told I would probably not dance again, and it might take me a year to walk normally. A couple of nights after the operation, I had a vision-like dream where I was on a desert battle field and my left leg had been blown off. I could see it separated from me; it was my leg and it was no longer part of me. Various thoughts came into mind but my second realisation surprised me, I felt deep within myself that my body is not my soul. I could lose my limbs, but I would still be Rosie. After training all my life to truly inhabit and imbue soul in every part of myself, it was a weird feeling. Then limping downstairs, putting on the TV and seeing the young faces of men who had lost their lives in Iraq, for the first time I correlated my experiences of my physical profession with that of a soldier. I had felt disengaged yet frustrated by the conflicts of that time, but this dream connected me to the actual body reality of soldiering. There are war artists, war poets, war photographers, but the medium of the soldiers’ craft is their bodies, perhaps a choreographer would have a unique perspective on what they do? And I wanted to feel what it felt like to train as a soldier. I wanted to understand something I was scared of yet and that I felt quite ill educated about but from a perspective I could handle, the perspective of the body. 

At the time I didn’t know if I would make a piece of work from this research or not, and I was worried about the absurdity of trying to attempt a ‘dance about war’, but I kept coming across inspiring moments and making totally new and incredible connections between the soldiers and dance. It took me a while to really believe that this research would make a great piece of work.

How did you prepare to choreograph a piece that portrays the unique physicality of combat?

I joined The 4th Battalion The Rifles, going to barracks then setting off for a four-day and night exercise on Dartmoor with battle training exercises. The training was very intense; sleep deprivation, dawn attacks, rations, sleeping outdoors, the cold, the wet, the rain and incredibly heavy equipment to carry. At times I felt I couldn’t go on, but I have to say a dancer’s training helped quite a bit. As the soldiers got used to me, and I proved I could survive and keep up, they opened up and I learnt a lot about their jobs and their lives. I also spent time on barracks and even joined an exercise as an enemy in mock villages on Salisbury Plain. I found it pretty overwhelming, it’s a place where you are being taught a lot, and your skills and ability are assessed all the time. By fitting in and picking up, I was accepted and got to see a side of the army I don’t think many outsiders do.

How have the creative team and dancers helped to bring the piece to life?

This show has some really key collaborators, both in its original conception and now in the re-working for this tour. I worked with David Cotterrell, a visual artist, who visited Afghanistan with Join Medical Forces, around the time I was researching with 4 RIFLES. Some of his video footage is in the show, and his experiences helped shape a lot of the concepts. I also worked with theatre director Walter Meierjohann and dramaturg Petra Tauscher, with some incredible recent support from my regular collaborator Ben Payne, who helped with the character development of the new cast members. 

I think this is such an incredible cast - five beautiful, strong and very dedicated dancers, Shelley Eva Haden, Oliver Russell and Duncan Anderson (who were in the original cast) and two new members, Reece Causton, playing the sergeant and Luke Bradshaw, playing the officer. All the cast have experience of working and training and exercising with the Army. I've absolutely loved working with them on this new version of the show, I've actually re-choreographed quite a bit, and it’s a joy to see new people bring the show to life. The final major difference to this show in Scotland is the fact that we are presenting it in association with the Army in Scotland. We've had really amazing support from 51st Infantry Brigade who have helped us with PT and Drill instructors all across Scotland (for the cast and for all the dance leaders), and support from a Sergeant Major who watched a rough run of the show and gave detailed notes, as well as his interpretation of the more expressive moments. 

Can you tell us a bit about 5 Soldiers’ tour and community engagement programme?

I’m really passionate about dance and education, and I love sharing my choreographic experiences to support young artists and professionals. I developed a model with a project I created for the Cultural Olympiad (London 2012) on the Severn Valley Railway where I worked with professionals, young dancers and trained 13 regional dance artists to create a small part of a bigger work, which included over 300 participants. I also developed this working method with Haining Dreaming in 2013 in Selkirk. 5 Soldiers is such a specific work and I wanted to attract a different audience to it, as well as share some learning and develop dance workshops in the areas surrounding bases. We’ve got a team of incredibly talented dance artists in each of the areas we are touring, who have trained with us alongside an army instructor. They’ve all been working since early March with their groups and are commissioned to create a short work performed on the Saturday night, right before the professional cast. I try not to have any kind of hierarchy- they are as important to me as every part of the experience. We’ve had young people from army bases take part and continue to dance, and we’ve worked with hard to reach and at risk young people, many of who have gone on to take up dancing more formally. I truly believe that dance can transform people’s lives through participation and through watching it. It can change your mind and your body!

Tour details

Rosie Kay Dance Company's 5 Soldiers has its Scottish premiere at Tramway on Friday 29 April. 

Tramway | Glasgow Fri 29 + Sat 30 Apr | 7.30pm | tramway.org

Glencorse Barracks | Penicuik (presented by Eastgate Theatre and Arts Centre) Fri 6 + Sat 7 May | 7.30pm | eastgatearts.com

Macrobert Arts Centre | Stirling Fri 13 + Sat 14 May | 7.30pm | macrobertartscentre.org

Fort George | Ardersier (presented by Eden Court) Fri 20 + Sat 21 May | 7.30pm | eden-court.co.uk

Gordon Barracks | Aberdeen (presented by Citymoves) Fri 27 + Sat 28 May | 7.30pm | aberdeenperformingarts.com

5 SOLDIERS is funded by Creative Scotland's Open Project Fund; The Armed Forces Covenant Fund; ABF The Soldiers’ Charity.

Photo credit: Colin Hattersley

This article was published on 26 Apr 2016