Putting military matters onstage convincingly, particularly a dance stage, requires a rare skill. Kenneth MacMillan’s soldiers in Different Drummer and Gloria are too consciously balletic while the Tommies who descend into Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land, part of English National Ballet’s Lest We Forget programme (to be revived this autumn), are too obviously related to baydères. The same whiff of artificiality cannot be levelled at those portrayed in the revival of Rosie Kay’s 5 Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline, currently touring.
The five, one woman and four men, perform the opening square-bashing with a precision that is as crisp as any military trooping or passing out. There is a touch of the ridiculous to these repeated drills but an ominous throbbing noise underscores the fact that these are no playground exercises. The rhythmic stamping of boots on the ground creates its own music – and logic for a soldier’s existence. It is evident that live action is anticipated and Kay skilfully evokes the dread hours of anticipation that occupies soldiers’ lives before going into combat.
Kay’s cast all look real, raw, anxious and laser sharp, ready for action. Virtuoso barrelling press-ups and floor exercises hint at a controlled aggression waiting to be released. As these soldiers await the call to arms there is a cock-strutting competitiveness to their horseplay with piles of tyres, a release for their pent-up energy.
Such is the cast’s conviction, in an instant and without a change of costume, they become an equally convincing suite of Chippendales who indulge in a Full Monty routine, posing lasciviously while Shelley Eva Haden, the lone female in the platoon, undresses and luxuriously exfoliates her sculptural legs, as lethal as any weapon of war. In the ensuing kick fight Haden seems to collapse, traumatised, but when she is paraded aloft around the stage, perhaps as a trophy of war or perhaps as her male colleagues’ fantasy female, what she represents is left ambiguous.
5 Soldiers is at its most self-consciously choreographed in two duets that follow. In the first Haden and one of her male colleagues share a rare moment of intimacy in a sequence that requires a high level of balance and mutual trust. Next two of the men indulge in some controlled – and not so controlled – games of mutual domination. The parallels between the dance and military worlds are clearly but not crudely suggested.
After 50 minutes, tension and anticipation are heavy on the air. A throbbing, unresolved chord hovers menacingly. The soldiers nervously scratch at their mosquito bites. The sound of gunshots and helicopter blades are the cue for action. In a highly imaginative moment – excellent lighting and effects by Mike Gunning and David Cotterell – we share the experience of parachuting to earth and into a war zone. What follows, in the actual depiction of live combat against a fusillade of gunfire, is less impressive and Kay falls back on ballet clichés. Figures held in crucifix poses circling towards oblivion look too artificial and too stagey after the gritty realism conjured until now.
What follows has enormous emotional force. Out of the confusion of the attack four of the soldiers try to help an injured colleague against the ugly sound of rasping breath. A requiem rather too obviously suffuses the scene but the horror of war wounds is only too evident. Kay’s is a very economical and direct visualisation of those haunting words of Wilfred Owen. This is the reality of dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (it is sweet and right to die for your country). The wounded soldier – Oliver Russell, excellent, as are all the cast – survives but he emerges walking on his knees, an amputee, repeatedly falling to the ground as he tries to reach the four others, frozen in shock and grief. It is a sobering and shocking final image.
Rosie Kay’s inspiration came from imagining what it would be like to lose a limb while recuperating from a knee injury. The power of her imagination is striking, made all the more vivid as she and her cast undertook military training on Dartmoor and Salisbury plain during the creation of 5 Soldiers. The experience shows in the authenticity and conviction of the performances and the current tour continues until 13 June with performances at many army bases.
14 & 16 May, Newcastle, Dance City
23 – 24 May, Blandford, Semaphore Arms, Blandford Camp
29 – 30 May, Manchester, Rusholme Army Reserve Centre
5 – 6 June, York, Imphal Barracks
12 – 13 June, Brecon, Theatr Brycheiniog