Rosie Kay’s 5 Soldiers is about the army and how soldiers react to the pressures of what is a very different life. Premiered in 2010 it has become an enduring hit and a stunning 4 or 5-star work that I’ve seen many times in small theatre spaces, army barracks, drill halls and the like. To those in the dance know it’s a must-see, but there’s the rub – you have to know about it, and the places it has generally been at aren’t usually frequented by the mainstream public. To get 5 Soldiers out to a bigger audience it needed to grow in scale for mainstream theatre stages and it’s significant that the Birmingham Hippodrome has backed Kay to grow her best-known piece of dance for big-time touring. But does it work and has the magic of the original production been maintained?
To make it more of a full-evening show 10 Soldiers has doubled the number of dancers and is expanded from the original 65 minutes (run straight through) to 80 minutes and presented in 2 parts with an intervening interval. It starts with raw recruits (a diverse mix of ethnicity and sex), and we see their induction, initial training and drills as we get to know them a little as individuals and how they react to the bellowed orders of the two corporals in charge of them. After the interval we see much more of the original 5 Soldiers production as the section enjoy R&R, go to war and live with the consequences. It’s the joshing camaraderie that continues to come over, not least in the fun section where they all pretend to be in a Katy Perry video. And sex, in the mixed unit of 10 men and 2 women, is there too – nothing smutty happens but you can see lusts and love percolate up and defuse as the real job to be done comes to the fore. There was a particularly clever bit of new choreography as the younger corporal, the hip-hop/contemporary dancer Emma Houston, does a little display of longing love, hoping to attract Harriet Ellis’ soldier – if to no avail. What I love about 5/10 Soldiers is the believable nature of the interactions and the real-life feelings shown both as acted and strong athletic movement.
Along with doubling the number of dancers, we get more design (by Louis Price), mainly by way of video projections hanging over the action at the back of the stage. Overall there is much more going on, but characters still break through, and ‘old’ Rosie Kay Company dancers Luke Bradshaw and Harriet Ellis are particularly communicative and sharp.
In her notes for 10 Soldiers it’s clear that Rosie Kay has enjoyed revisiting her original show and taking it up a theatrical notch. She makes the point that 10 soldiers are roughly the number in a British army section and thus the unit on stage feels right for a cohesive group, and they move as they should. My feeling is that 10 Soldiers does deliver for larger audiences, but that 5 Soldiers remains the slightly more visceral and gut-punching piece because it’s concentrated and runs straight through – you feel more part of the journey. Being nearer to the action (in a small space) also helps. And whenever I’ve seen 5 Soldiers I’ve always thought the 5 dancers incredibly coordinated, but with 10 on stage little timing discrepancies are perhaps more inevitable. I’m being very picky, but 5 Soldiers has set the bar high over many casts.
Ultimately, though, both versions of Soldiers have the same impact of sending you home aware of the sacrifice involved and proud of what the military does. And it’s good that the real army is now almost an established part of the show, usually in post-show talks. Their endorsement perhaps says all we need to know about what we see and Kay’s achievement in producing a work that takes us on such a challenging and thought-provoking journey.