A visceral ‘tour de force’ of the senses, 5 SOLDIERS provides an intimate view of the training that prepares our soldiers for the sheer physicality of combat, for the possibility of injury, and the impact conflict has on the bodies and minds of everyone it reaches.
The piece has a powerful physicality, moments of humour and is full of honesty, all inspired by input from serving and former soldiers, and has been endorsed as ‘getting it’ by its military audiences. In movement, the performance weaves a story of physical transformation, helping us to understand what makes a soldier and how the experience of warfare affects those that choose to put their life on the line.
What was the inspiration for this performance?
Way back in in December 2006 I suffered a serious knee injury while performing on stage. I was told I would probably not dance again, and it might take me a year to walk normally- so at least a year off dancing, if not a career change. A couple of nights after the operation, I had a vision like dream, where I was on a desert battle field and my left leg had been blown off- I could see it separated from me it was my leg and it was no longer part of me.
Various thoughts came into mind but my second realisation surprised me - I felt deep within myself, that my body is not my soul - I could lose my limbs, but I would still be Rosie. After training all my life to truly inhabit and imbue soul in every part of myself, this was a weird feeling. Then limping downstairs, putting on the TV and seeing the young faces of men who had lost their lives in (at that time) Iraq, for the very first time I correlated my own experiences of my physical profession with that of a soldier. I had felt disengaged yet frustrated by the conflicts of that time, yet this dream connected me to the actual body reality of soldiering.
There are war artists, war poets, war photographers, but the medium of the soldiers craft is their bodies - perhaps a choreographer would have a unique perspective on what they do? And I wanted to feel what it felt like to train as a soldier. I love my profession so much, I would happily risk injury to perform, but soldiers risk not just limb but life - what could that training entail for them to do this? And perhaps soldiers are really proud of this? I just wanted to understand something I was scared of yet, but also I felt quite ill educated about, from a perspective I could handle - form the perspective of the body.
How did you go about gathering the team for it?
This show has some really key collaborators, both in its original conception and now in the re-working for this tour. I worked with David Cotterrell, a visual artist, who visited Afghanistan with Join Medical Forces, around the time I was researching with 4 RIFLES. Some of his video footage is in the show, and his experiences helped shape a lot of the concepts. I also worked with theatre director Walter Meierjohann and dramaturg Petra Tauscher, with some incredible recent support from my regaled collaborator Ben Payne, who helped with the character development of the new cast members.
I think this is such an incredible cast - 5 beautiful, strong and very dedicated dancers, Shelley Eva Haden, Oliver Russell and Duncan Anderson (who were in the original cast) and two new members, Reece Causton, who pays the sergeant and Luke Bradshaw who plays the officer. All the cast have had experience of working and training and exercising with the Army.
I've absolutely loved working with them on this new version of the show- I've actually re-choreographed quite bit, and its a joy to see new people bring the show to life. The final major difference to this show in Scotland is the fact that we are presenting it in association with the Army in Scotland. We've had really amazing support from 51st Infantry Brigade, who have helped us with PT and Drill instructors, all across Scotland (for the cast and for all the dance leaders), and a Sergeant Major who watched a rough run of the show today and gave detailed notes on specific areas, as well as his interpretation of the more expressive moments.
How did you become interested in making performance in the first place - does it hold any particular qualities that other media don't have?
At the time of my training with the army, I didn’t know if I would
make a piece of work from this research or not- it truly was research and I was worried about the absurdity of trying to attempt a ‘dance about war’, but I kept coming across inspiring moments and making totally new and incredible connections between the soldiers and dance, and I started to get inspired, but it took me a while longer to really believe that this research would make a great piece of work.
Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?
I do have a long and very thorough research process in making all of my works. Each has their own individual journey, but normally takes me on average 2 years of research before I get to the studio. This means I am thinking and working on ideas all the time!
For example, my very first work, Patisserie (1999) was based on in depth interviews with Polish women about their appearance, and became a tight, funny 10 minute solo. My first company work, Asylum (2004) was based on interviews and research with refugees and asylum seekers. There is Hope (2012) was based on a lot of research with different religious communities - in the UK, in my city (Birmingham) and then I managed to get some support to take a research trip to India and China which really affects the work.Through my work, I've even had a position as the Leverhulme Artist in Residence to the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at the University of Oxford.
I think my research was recognised at the school, as having an anthropological insight, although I hadn't realised it. It was a very valuable ear for me and I continue to be a Research Associate there.
5 Soldiers is still very specific, because it was a very long research process and quite in depth. Once you get inside the military it is a world you don't forget.
What do you hope that the audience will experience?
The whole production is a careful balance between a strong sense of authenticity and its actual theatricality. The authenticity come from the observation of details and the semblance of some reenactments of military details- things like drill or PT (physical training for example). We had to get the detail right- because that IS part of the world - attention to detail, getting it right. If you got it wrong, or we were lazy, we’d lose half our audience straight away!
So for this part I tested out a huge number of ideas, but found the ones that worked on stage, and worked choreographically. With drill, I kept to a very limited palette of marches, halt, attention, salutes etc., but carefully choreographed a 5 minute section, where it become more and more complex - its like three dimensional maths for the dancers!
For theatricality, I wanted to find a way to get across the emotion and the poetry, and even beauty that the soldiers described of their world and their experiences- this was something out with the detail and our outside assumptions of soldiers. For many young people, Afghanistan was a place of great beauty as well as great danger. I wanted to use the body and the dance to express some of that. This gives me a freedom on stage- it could be the soldiers fantasies or it could be their emotional feelings.
The whole show I think works because of this tension - between turning the reality into dance, and by allowing the dance to tell us more about themselves than we realise and we feel for them.
It's quite a striped back and simple set - just 5 soldiers, in uniform, their berghans (military rucksacks) and 8 tyres. The soldiers are confined in a pen like set - fenced in - almost like a boxing arena.
We use video projection to enhance the visceral effect - from military computer data read outs, to real footage from flying over war zones. There are a couple of props, but ultimately the show is them- the soldiers and their bodies. The music is incredible - I've worked with composer Annie Mahtani for over 10 years now, and she creates a hypnotic sound score that weaves electroacoustic sounds (from drones, aircraft, bird song) with Katy Perry, The Clash and Pergolesi's Stabat Mater.
What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
I wanted to create a show that has an embodied effect on the audience. By doing this, you can’t feel the same about soldiering
and war in the same way again. So it humanising something that is very dehumanised, very politised. We see those soldiers as humans- highly trained, aggressive-yes, complex and nuanced humans, but we feel it- we go through it with them. Our audience will walk away with a changed understanding of what it might feel like to be in that situation. Its not documentary- you can't sit and purely observe, but through the work, and the dancers very visceral physicality, you become witness to their experiences, and you empathise with soldiers' everyday life.
Do you see your work within any particular tradition?
Yes - my heroes are Pina Baush, for her drama and her theatre, the spectacle and the pain. My other hero is Merce Cunningham, for his technicality, his precision and his incredible sense of humour (just watch it- it is very funny!). I was lucky enough to meet them both and learn their repertoire when they were both alive, and in fact I danced in front of them both and food them to be incredible people. They are my heroes, but I come from a long line of pioneering female choreographers such as (German Expressionists) Mary Wigman, Gret Palucca, Anita Berber and Martha Graham. I'm very proud of that tradition as a choreographer.
Are there any other questions I ought to ask that might help me to understand the meaning of dramaturgy for you in your work?
I want this work to mean something. I think of myself as a political choreographer. I want to make work about the world I live in. I am inspired by artists that want change and I too want to transform through work; through watching it and through participation.
SCOTTISH TOUR OF 5 SOLDIERS
Tramway | 25 Albert Drive, Glasgow G41 2PE | Fri 29 + Sat 30 Apr | 7.30pm
Glencorse Barracks | Penicuik EH26 0NP (presented by Eastgate Theatre & Arts Centre) | Fri 6 + Sat 7 May | 7.30pm
Macrobert Arts Centre | University of Stirling, Stirling FK9 4LA | Fri 13 + Sat 14 May | 7.30pm
Fort George | Old Military Road, Ardersier IV2 7TD (presented by Eden Court) | Fri 20 + Sat 21 May | 7.30pm
Gordon Barracks | Ellon Road, Bridge of Don, Aberdeen AB23 8DB (presented by Citymoves) | Fri 27 + Sat 28 May | 7.30pm