Interview: Rosie Kay: 'I pushed and pushed and pushed this into a choreographic exploration of discipline, energy, repression and aggression.'

Monday 28 August 2017 by Ka Bradley

Rosie Kay talks body and war as her sell out show 5 Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline returns to London this September.

‘Ten years ago, in December 2006, I suffered a serious injury on stage. I was told I’d never dance again – fortunately it wasn’t quite that bad. In January 2007, I had a knee operation and few days later, recovering from general anesthetic, I had a very vivid dream. I was lying on desert a battlefield, and my left leg had been blown off. This dream led me to question where exactly did the soul reside in my body – if I lost my arms and legs, would I still be Rosie? I’ve trained since I was three to do my job and would have done anything to get back on stage.

I then limped downstairs and turned on the TV, and the news showed the faces of young male soldiers, killed in Iraq. For the very first time, the dream still fresh in my mind and body, I found myself trying to understand their training, and the discipline and devotion to the body that it required with a vocation that risks not just limb but life. There have been war poets, war photographers and war artists, but the medium of the soldier’s job is their body. Training as a solider – the discipline, the complex instructions, the necessity to make decisions about your body – as a dancer, and a choreographer, perhaps I could understand that.

I think the relationship between the body and war is deeply philosophically interesting. We’ve been blinded by discussion around technology and politics and weaponry, but the thing that hasn’t changed is the body. At its core, all wars over all time are about killing and harming the body. Politicians send our soldiers to war and we, ultimately, vote in these politicians. We can’t distance ourselves from our responsibility, though we try to.

I’ve found some of the discussion about leadership in the Army very interesting. At a post-show talk for 5 Soldiers, a battalion leader described the responsibility of a commander – having to make decisions about each life, each body. I understood that, as a choreographer, about the weight of responsibility for other people’s bodies and what you’re asking of them.

At the start of my research, I spent some time embedded with an infantry battalion, The 4th Battalion The Rifles. Then I spent some time at Headley Court and at Selly Oak in Birmingham, [Royal Centre for Defence Medicine], where a lot of soldiers were returning from Afghanistan. Taliban tactics had altered, and a very large number of soldiers were returning with ‘complex trauma injuries’ and suffering multiple amputation injuries.


5 Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline sets five bodies in a holding pen, fenced in, in a constant state of waiting. The show follows a structure of basic training and drill, then time off, larking about and relationships, with them then helicoptering into an enemy terrain, ending in a scene of injury. I deliberately chose not to have an enemy in the show, as during my research, soldiers talked of how the Taliban switched tactics and relied far more on Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s). The statistics at one point meant that one in four patrols had some kind of serious incident and IED attack’s lead to a huge amount of deaths and injuries. I also chose not to have any weapons – the cast and I have all had some weapons training, but using them in the show was cumbersome and I decided to focus on the body itself in war – stripped of weaponry and technology.

5 Soliders is therefore about the body on the frontline, the body trained to harm and be harmed. I pushed and pushed and pushed this into a choreographic exploration of discipline, energy, repression and aggression. Dance allows me to explore the emotional aspect as much as the military physicality. Many soldiers talk about moments of great poetry, great thrill – high above the ground in a Chinook, looking at the land spread out below them. I tried to find this poetry and beauty and thrill in the dance. We represent this through some beautiful footage of Afghanistan projected on stage as the dancers parachute out of the back of an imaginary helicopter. I worked with visual artist David Cotterrell, who visited Afghanistan with Join Medical Forces and video designer Louis Price and projection is used throughout the work.


There is one woman in the piece, which I thought was, if not exactly proportional to women serving, then at least representational. She’s always keeping pace with the four men, but she’s also being judged as a woman. There’s one scene where she goes from being objectified, to maybe enjoying it a little, to being afraid – she’s attracted the attention of these trained attackers. But then they come to her needing comfort, she takes on a maternal role, and she is saluted as the Queen. She can embody the experience of womanhood, separated, but she’s also part of the team. She’s strong and together. It’s a major role for a woman and Harriet Ellis has achieved high praise from serving female soldiers who have seen the work .

I was interested in the tension between genders. Around 10% [of those working for the Army in any capacity] are women, but women were not allowed to join the infantry to fight on the frontline until 2016. I was expecting more and on battle exercises Dartmoor and on Salisbury Plain, embedded with The 4th Battalion The Rifles, I was the only woman.

I can’t claim to represent or understand the experience of women serving in the Army, but I can say what I felt and I interviewed a lot of soldiers in my research process. I felt I was always being watched and tested, but once I was through the gateways, I was welcome. Under my helmet, in camouflage, listening to and trying to obey complex orders about where to put my body, I could forget myself, my identity. But equally, with the helmet off, I sometimes found myself being treated differently – with gentlemanly charm, or overhearing talk about ‘slags’ and girlfriends. They tended to put that macho posing away after a bit, though.


From the outside, the works I’ve made may look different, and on quite a range of subjects, but as I look back over my work, I see a line that runs through them. I’m interested in the body, the soul, the ways the body processes systems and how this affects the way you think. I allow the worlds I draw inspiration from to shape the work. I want to explore the world; not only ‘from a female perspective’, I want to meet the whole world with my work and comment upon it. I want to be able to work with both. It’s my right, as an artist.’

5 SOLDIERS: The Body is the Frontline is at Yeomanry House 7 – 9 September. Tickets can be purchased via the Sadler’s Wells website.

Rosie Kay spoke to Ka Bradley. Ka is a writer and editor based in London. Her reviews have appeared in Exeunt, The Stage and Her fiction has appeared in Granta, Catapult, The Offing, Minor Literature[s] and Somesuch Stories.

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