The stark reality of military life portrayed in 5 Soldiers began before the lights went down. I’m not just talking about the use of a military drill hall as a venue for its London performances, or an army reserve centre for its recent previous run at the Edinburgh Fringe. A brief introduction from choreographer and director Rosie Kay informed us that one of the dancers, Oliver Russell, was indisposed having sustained an injury ‘in warm-up class’. This is not, as I later discovered, the first time 5 Soldiers became 4 Soldiers – a performance in York in 2015 went ahead with a similarly reduced cast.
I bring up that backstory as it reflects both what happens in the narrative, on military operations – injuries occur, and the show carries on just as wars and peacekeeping duties continue, relentlessly. At least this production comes up for air every so often: just enough not to be an exhausting experience, though the intensity of the performance, particularly in its latter stages, is psychologically challenging. Duncan Anderson shines as the soldier who must learn to walk again, a poignant performance without a hint of melodrama.
As ever with smaller venues, particularly ones such as this that are not usually used to stage productions, the sightlines were a tad problematic when the action was taking place on the floor. And floor action is quite unavoidable. I trust it isn’t too much of a spoiler to point out that a depiction of Army life through dance is going to involve a little bit of choreographed crawling, for instance. I wondered if all the movement was going to be stilted and – well, military – but there is scope for some highly deft dancing. Even the parade marching started to look like a ballet of sorts.
The production gets around the limitations of feasible movements and dance routines by taking the characters away from the theatre of war and into a long scene set in an unspecified town, but one with a significant nightlife. As with much decent contemporary dance, what goes on is open to interpretation. The sole female soldier (Harriet Ellis) is the centre of attention, but is the scene misogynistic, or just army lads (the aforementioned Anderson, plus Luke Bradshaw and Reece Causton) being army lads?
The lady appears in some respects to be a prize to be won, but in the sheer power she wields over her potential suitors, and the poise and confidence she demonstrates – even if merely putting on a brave face – it can be argued that it’s she who wears the trousers, so to speak. Before that, however, comes the build-up, in the form of an all-out party dance sequence to the sound of ‘Firework’, a chart music number made famous by Katy Perry. (My knowledge of chart music being negligible, I am grateful to a fellow audience member for telling me which tune it was. And, as it goes, I rather liked it.)
While there are also some video projections which help to create an appropriate atmosphere, it’s the impeccable dancers who make the show so incredible. This intriguing and thought-provoking production is entertaining and enlightening in equal measure. A decisive victory for the Rosie Kay Dance Company.
Review by Chris Omaweng
In 2008, Birmingham based choreographer Rosie Kay joined The 4th Battalion The Rifles, to watch and participate in full battle exercises, and visited the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre for our Armed Forces. What came of these observations is an award-winning, five-star work 5 SOLDIERS: The Body is the Frontline. Sadler’s Wells presents the return of 5 SOLDIERS at Yeomanry House, as part of a UK tour exclusively to military venues in a significant new partnership with the Army from Thursday 7 September – Saturday 9 September.
Deeply realistic, stark and thrilling 5 SOLDIERS offers no moral stance on war. Instead, through Kay’s trademark intense physical and athletic dance theatre, it questions what it is that we ask of our soldiers and explores how the human body remains essential to war, even in the 21st century when technology and machinery play a key role in battle. Kay’s work looks at the connection between the work of the dancer and the soldier. Both risk injury and face the experience of recovering as part of their jobs.
5 SOLDIERS: The Body is the Frontline is part of Sadler’s Wells’ regular programme of performances offsite
Yeomanry House, Handel Street, WC1N 1NP
Thursday 7, Friday 8 & Saturday 9 September