“You’re dead!”– this eerie and flinchingly realistic command comes from the drill sergeant (Reece Causton) during the opening section of Rosie Kay Dance Company’s 5 Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline.
For a minute or two I found these alienating shouts disturbing and disorientating – frequently looking round the room for an enemy attack. What am I watching, a troop of soldiers on drill manoeuvres or five dancers? Combining the haunting atmosphere of the Army Reserve Centre in Sparkbrook with Kay’s athletic choreography, 5 Soldiers fuses the macho world of the army with contemporary dance and blurs the boundaries between reality and spectacle.
In most theatrical dance productions, the themes of conflict and war have been portrayed as a series of synchronized movements mapped out as a struggle between good and evil. Traditional three-act ballets such as Kenneth Macmillan’s Romeo and Juliet utilise formation set pieces to depict fencing and gang violence, for example, and these tend to follow the clinical pattern of formal choreographic tropes. Traditionally, dance had no place for realism; choreography became a means to tell a story. 5 Soldiers does the opposite, mixing army training techniques with the robotic bold lines of Kay’s choreography to create an immersive experience.
What sets 5 Soldiers apart from traditional productions is the fact that there is no discernible enemy. The dancers react and respond to the invisible. Here, this alienating and intimate setup allows Kay to explore the inner workings of the soldier free from narrative constraints. Using the simple tripartite structure following three basic elements of an army career enables the performance to focus on the brutal physicality of being a soldier, an existence that is unforgiving of gender roles.
The second section of the production develops the camaraderie and relationships between soldiers. In training and combat a soldier is a soldier regardless of gender, but during down time this becomes problematic. This is shown in an uncomfortable sequence wherein the only female officer (Harriet Ellis) strips down to her underwear whilst dancing to Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’. She slowly takes away the armour and makeup that dehumanizes her, her camo gear strewn to one side.
Here, she and her male colleagues wrestle with their duty and their desires. What plays out during the song is not so different to the military drills in the first section – high leg kicks and sharp staccato lines – but without the regalia and insignia of the armed forces. Stripped bare, performing the splits in front of her male peers she becomes sexualised and offers her gender more freely than before. In another way, this is another layer of armour to protect herself from the physical differences between her and the others.
This second part also makes clear the awkward tension between soldiers’ public and private selves. The machismo gestures in this scene are clearly driven by their vulnerability. They pursue the female soldier until they realise their actions are inappropriate. However, from here they turn to her as a mother figure, highlighting their reliance upon gender stereotypes and the emotional outlet that they lack.
The men remorsefully hold Ellis aloft on their shoulders as if she is sitting upon a throne. They march alongside her whilst Causton moves his hands as if to crown her. Fantasy is a key aspect of 5 Soldiers; everyone has projected their fantasy of protection, Britain-as-mother and their duty to her, onto the female soldier. The men want to be everything at once; action man, hero, lover, protector and father but this comes at a cost.
The third and last section of the piece shows one of the soldiers being shot (Duncan Anderson), as a result of which he undergoes a double amputation below the knee. The other dancers bind his legs, and a brief sequence shows him re-learning how to move in his altered body, at first supported by his comrades and then alone. For me this exemplifies where 5 Soldiers is at its best, but also raises questions. One connects with the subjective experience of amputation, of trauma, almost of being born again into a strange new body. The hardships and complexities of existing as a woman in a man’s world are vividly and intelligently rendered.
But this focus also results in the erasure of the outside world. Our soldiers are on patrol in a country that is strangely empty, full of danger but devoid of subjectivity – the mere backdrop of their personal stories. It is confusing that the marketing material makes the claim that 5 Soldiers ‘offers no moral judgment on war’.
I think this obscures the real point that 5 Soldiers isn’t about war as such, it’s about the human and bodily element of combat. But then this tour is supported by the British Army; tonight’s performance was hosted in an Army reserve base. Why? Clearly for the Army this is a public relations exercise, to ‘engage’ people and break down barriers as was made clear in the post-performance discussion. But 5 Soldiers is not reducible to that; it stands on its own as a nuanced depiction of military life.
5 Soldiers – The Body is the Frontline / Rosie Kay Dance Company
For more on Rosie Kay Dance Company, visit www.rosiekay.co.uk
For further details on the Army Reserve Centre (Golden Hillock Road, Sparkbrook, B11 2QG), visit www.army.mod.uk/join/37787.aspx
For more from the Birmingham REP, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk