5 Questions for Rosie Kay on the-up-and-coming national tour of ‘5 SOLDIERS: The Body is the Frontline’ – her powerful piece about war and those who fight for us.
Rosie Kay’s ‘5 SOLDIERS: The Body is the Frontline’ is making a welcome return to the UK stage. One of her most famous works, it immerses audiences in a world few of us know but all rely on – the army and soldering. Time for a chat…
Where did the idea for 5 SOLDIERS come from?
After a severe knee injury in early 2007 and the resulting surgery, I had a vision-like dream of lying in a desert war zone and realising that my left leg had been blown off – I could see my leg far away to my right, a large lump of bone and flesh, dislocated from my body, but still “my” body. My first thought was shock, my second was surprise: I discovered (in my dream state) that I could lose my limbs, but that I did not lose my soul. While my body was my (dancer’s) identity, by losing parts of it I did not lose myself. Switching on the TV the following morning, I was confronted yet again with images of more soldiers killed in Iraq. I stopped and looked at them, the dreamed memory of the battlefield still within me, and I saw and felt the connection between the dancer’s body and the soldier’s body. I wondered how a soldier could risk, not just injury and the potential loss of limbs, but even his life, for a job. Do the role of soldier and the physical act of soldiering mean that the soldier is willing to take those risks? Is there perhaps even a thrill, an enjoyment, a love of soldiering? There have been war artists, war photographers, war poets, but the medium of their profession is their body – perhaps a war choreographer could get under the skin of a soldier and portray how it actually feels to be a soldier.
Soldiering and contemporary dance don’t seem such natural bedfellows – how did you convince the military to become involved?
It took me nearly two years to secure and begin my attachment to The 4th Battalion the Rifles (4 RIFLES). I was finally able to join them for a two-week period of training exercises on Dartmoor, at barracks in Bulford, and on exercises on Salisbury Plain. Following this attachment I also secured a week’s secondment at the Defense Medical Rehabilitation Centre Headley Court (DMRC Headley Court) and visited the Royal Centre for Defense Medicine (RCDM) then at Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham. The two-week experience with 4 RIFLES was highly demanding and full of incredibly strong and powerful experiences and emotions for me. It began with a four day and night exercise on Dartmoor, where I struggled with a 70lb rucksack, known in the military as a Berghan, helmet, and body armour over a continuous march, with battle exercises taking place throughout each day and in early dawn attacks.
For this new tour I first of all went back to all my original partners from the 2010-2011 tours and asked their opinion on whether there would be interest if I were to re-stage the work, and proposed the planned outreach and community engagement work. The support was overwhelming- people could describe the work still in detail to me, 5 years on, and they felt that there was an even greater need for the soldiers’ stories to be told and the link and connections made with the general public. I did a huge amount of planning and made links across the country between interested theatres and their corresponding military bases, HIVE’s and battalions. Through my work at Oxford and the Changing Character of War group at All Souls, I managed to meet and to talk with General Sir Nick Parker (former Commander Land Forces, British Army) and General Sir Nick Carter (current Chief of General Staff of the Army). They both personally helped put me in touch with the right people within the military, and I made links at each base and very importantly got the support of the Army Welfare Service- the people who support the command and support the soldiers and their families. General Sir Nick Parker has been incredibly helpful, putting his time and connections into making the work have an impact, and he will be joining us in several locations on the tour to be part of the post-show talks, even hosting a post-show dinner in London at The Rifles Club on the 8th May.
Incredibly this time around, the full cast has been allowed to join 4RIFLES for a whole week of battle training exercises, which has massively informed their understanding of the subject matter.
The tour takes in several military barracks and clubs – do they view it differently to the ‘usual’ audience? And do they give feedback?
You just try stopping them! The difficulty is getting people to come and see the show, but once the work starts, and they see the attention to detail and the characters, humour and not to mention the physical skills and strength of the dancers, they visibly relax. One scene in particular is very revealing: in a section called patrol, a civilian audience watches and sees the formations of the dancers. When a military audiences watches this section you see their ears prick up and they sit very still- you know that they feel the tension and have the memory of being out on patrol themselves; the experience of watching the piece evoked memories of combat and preparation for combat as experienced in the body.
These are quotes from officers interviewed following a performance:
Then going actually out on an operation, of being dropped by helicopter and getting ready and so on, you could feel the tension and that was really communicated, and there is a lot of tension because you don’t quite know what’s going to happen and your body is getting prepared and the adrenalin is starting, that brought back memories …
Another officer commented that:
Although this was a dance show, actually there were so many parts of it that were hugely physical, and they kept up that stamina and endurance for a long period – it was very impressive and had you not known they were just dancers, if you’d photographed them, not dancing, in a different…with their look and dripping with sweat, you’d think that was a squaddie off training or having just been running around in Afghanistan in forty degrees of heat.
You’ve been Artist in Residence at an Oxford college these last 2 years (earlier Q&A on this) – interesting?
My position at Oxford has been incredibly inspiring and enriching. My association, and that of my dance company, through the Leverhulme Scholarship with the School of Anthropology & Museum Ethnography has brought a variety of outcomes to both me, my work and to the department. I undertook a period of research in collaboration with Dr. Karin Eli, as well as producing several key pieces of work both within the university and engaging with the wider public with a national UK tour and a new work premiered at Edinburgh Festival. The position has had a strong impact on the diversity of the work that I create, and has directly informed both process and result within my practice and the company works. The residency has also resulted in the creation of RKDC LAB’s and Scratch programmes- a programme of practical and theoretical training opportunities for recent arts graduates, built from the learning experienced and developed while at the department.
The key central project has been the research investigating the lived experience of women with eating disorders; this large project has resulted in recruitment of participants, a series of dance workshops followed with discussion groups, the creation and performance of their danced solos, full ethnographic interviews and analysis of their dances by the researcher and choreographer and by the participant/ choreographer themselves. This work has informed a seminar at University of Oxford, forms the first of 3 papers, which has recently been published by The Medical Humanities Journal, entitled: “Choreographing lived experience: dance, feelings and the storytelling body”.
After the 5 Soldiers tour what’s coming up? And congrats on new baby Gabriel – has your artistic world been all shook-up?!
Well, we are looking at the future plans for 5 SOLDIERS, with some more touring in the pipeline, including some international touring, which is very exciting. I’m also quite deeply into the research for my new work, entitled MK Ultra. This new work is exploring the deep and complex world of conspiracy theories. Inspired by the huge increase in conspiracy themed ideas, which ranges from government cover-ups, music industry symbolism and fashion archetypes, this new work promises to be an assault on the senses.
In regards to having baby Gabriel – I’ve got to say it was quite hard; harder than I was expecting around the birth and in recovery, partly due to the precarious nature of the funding world and having any kind of financial stability. However, he is such a joy to have in my life, and he seems to LOVE being in the studio and being with dancers. The next stage is going to be interesting as I take him on tour throughout the UK- to military bases! What seems to have deepened though is my drive and determination- I’m more focused and have to be more organised now I have a baby. What did I do with my time before he came along?!
**5 SOLDIERS- The Body is the Frontline opens Birmingham Repertory Theatre 23 April then touring to Oxford, London, Newcastle, Blandford, Manchester, York and Brecon **Full touring and performance details at www.5soldiers.co.uk