5 Soldiers, the dance show that explores war and the military

The cast of 5 Soldiers at Edinburgh Castle. Picture: Colin Hattersley
The cast of 5 Soldiers at Edinburgh Castle. Picture: Colin Hattersley
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Army barracks are among the venues for Rosie Kay’s acclaimed 5 Soldiers, which explores modern war through dance. The choreographer tells Kelly Apter how the show made her rethink her ideas about the military

It’s 4am and the fighting is about to begin. For four hours, the Infantry has marched through darkness carrying backpacks weighing over 70lbs, but now it’s time for the real challenge. The sound of rifles firing fills the air, adrenalin starts to pump and there, in the middle of it all, is Rosie Kay. Not a soldier but a choreographer, spending three days and four nights on Dartmoor training with The Rifles, an all-male regiment of the British Army.

“It was very intense,” she recalls, “and lifting so much weight for that amount of time was really tough going. I stupidly thought they would make compensations for me, because I’m a woman and a choreographer, but they knew I wanted to be involved as much as possible.

“And although I started off as an observer who was treated like an outsider by the soldiers, because of sleep deprivation, sharing rations and just sitting around talking together, their guards really came down. Plus they could see I could keep up and was enjoying it.”

It was the first of several periods of research which Kay later poured into her award-winning dance production, 5 Soldiers. As well as her gruelling but exciting experience on Dartmoor, she took part in a mock battle on Salisbury Plain including lengthy discussions about strategy and manoeuvres, which she was surprised to find “extremely choreographic”.

A few months later, however, she saw Army life from the other side, visiting Headley Court Rehabilitation Centre in Surrey. There Kay met men she had befriended during the training exercises, now back home and dealing with complex injuries after a tour in Afghanistan.

Having been inspired to create a show about Army life when she herself sustained a career-threatening injury, Kay was fascinated by how soldiers prepare, and heal, their bodies.

“As a dancer, I can get injured – but they risk life and limb,” says Kay. “I wanted to know: how do they prepare for that? How do you train your body and mind to risk everything, and then what do you do when you are injured?

“People are surviving much more traumatic injuries now than they would have in the past, and the Army has had to adjust to that after-care and support. Visiting Headley Court was a very good counterpart to the excitement of the other world on Dartmoor.”

The subtitle to 5 Soldiers is “The Body is the Frontline”, and it was this Kay was keen to communicate. She readily admits to her own thoughts and prejudices about the military before starting her research, but as time went on, she felt compelled to portray what lies behind the facade.

“I wanted to humanise something which has become very dehumanised,” she says. “We see the uniform and the weaponry, and we use the word soldier, but we don’t think about the human being. Yet despite all the changes in technology, the army is still made up of individual bodies. When we talk about war, we’re still talking about harm to the human body.”

The result is one of the most successful shows that Rosie Kay Dance Company has toured in recent years, collecting awards, nominations and high praise along the way. Civilian audiences see it as a visceral insight into Army life, while those who have actually been on the frontline have been impressed by the accuracy and attention to detail.

Support for the show in Scotland has come from Lt Col Gordon Mackenzie of the 51st Infantry Brigade, who has helped secure performance spaces in three Army barracks, open to all. For him, the show acts as a valuable bridge between the Army and the public.

“We want people to have a sense of ownership of the Army given that we are funded by the taxpayer,” says Lt Col Mackenzie. “And that includes reaching out to engage with different communities. So 5 Soldiers is an exciting opportunity to get people to look at us, and think about us, in different ways.

“One of our challenges is that we tend to live in barracks behind walls and fences and away from where most people live. This show gives us a chance to break down the barrack walls and bring people into the place we work. It will create debate and discussion, but we welcome that as we strive to broaden our dialogue with the people of Scotland.”

Kay herself was born in Devon, but spent her teenage years living in Edinburgh. We meet just along the road from her old high school, and the pleasure she takes in bringing work back to Scotland is palpable. Gaining such close access to the Army took, she tells me, “a very, very long time” – but once Kay was in, they really took her into the fold. That said, it was important for her to retain some distance.

“I’ve been really blown away by the support,” she says. “It’s not often that people like me get access to something like this, so as an artist I felt a responsibility to respond to it. But I also have to keep my integrity as a choreographer and it wouldn’t be right if I was just telling the Army’s story.

“We had to have a real sense of authenticity in the piece, so the details are all really well observed, but it’s a piece of dance, it’s stylised and theatrical, it’s not a documentary.”

Kay says she saw herself in the role of “war choreographer”, following in the footsteps of artists, poets, composers and filmmakers who have gone before during countless conflicts. Only with a dance production, the key component of both the subject matter and the artistic medium is the same – the human body.

“Audiences don’t look at 5 Soldiers in the same way you would a war film or book,” she says. “It makes you work because we’re not just shouting one single message - there are lots of different messages, and how you receive them will depend on your own viewpoint.”

Rosie Kay Dance Company’s 5 Soldiers is at Tramway, Glasgow, 29-30 April; Glencorse Barracks, Penicuik, 6-7 May; Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling, 13-14 May; Fort George, Ardersier, 20-21 May; Gordon Barracks, Aberdeen, 27-28 May, www.rosiekay.co.uk