Dance and war may initially seem poles apart but for British choreographer Rosie Kay, there are parallels – not least in the intense physicality of both and the effects when that peak fitness fails.
Kay’s ground-breaking production 5 Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline, coming to the Stephen Joseph Theatre next month, uses dance to explore the stories of a group of combatants who become fractured by war.
First created in 2010 at the height of the conflict in Afghanistan, it’s a brutally honest look at how war can leave a lasting legacy on those who fight.
Yet Kay’s interest in the piece was actually sparked by a dance injury she experienced and her psychological response to it.
“I had this really serious injury on stage, I was right at the peak of my career and I was told I wouldn’t dance again,” she recalls. “I then had an operation on my left knee and following that I had this dream that my leg had been blown off on a desert battlefield. These dreams made me think about the links of the physicality of a dancer with that of a soldier.”
Deciding to explore the subject more deeply, she asked the armed forces for help and they offered her an opportunity to spend two weeks on manoeuvres with 4th Battalion The Rifles near Salisbury. The results surprised her. “I was still having quite a lot of problems and pain with my leg when I went into the army and they pushed me so hard I was doing stuff with my body I didn’t think I would be able to do,” she says. It made her realise the importance of mental attitudes towards injury and pain.
“As an elite athlete, soldier or dancer you train your body to be so good at what it does that you don’t even have to think about it. You can do incredible things but as soon as you’re injured, not only is your body in pain but your entire identity is wiped out as well.”
When Kay first launched 5 Soldiers in 2010 it received a mixed response but in more recent years it has become hugely successful with repeat tours in both the UK and abroad. “When we toured the show in 2015, suddenly it got all the critics’ attention and received a raft of five-star reviews.”
And Kay believes 5 Soldiers has an important message for its audiences. “You come out having had such a strong, visceral experience and it also makes you think about things differently afterwards,” she says. “That seems to be across the board – whether it’s civilians, pacifists, army personnel – it cuts right through people’s prejudices or assumptions. It makes you realise the horror but also the humanity. War is a human act that we do to another. War across the centuries takes place on the human body.There is a reason I haven’t got bored of this show – I still feel quite angry about how a society can be at war and yet turn its eyes away from the people who return from that war. The soldiers are supposed to be doing it for our society, our freedom. And yet we don’t always want to see the consequences on their bodies and their minds when they return.”
5 Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, February 7. www.sjt.uk.com