Dance and warfare are two human activities in which human beings engage their bodies; train them, refine them, discipline them. What is the place of the human body in war in our day and age, asks choreographer Rosie Kay? And how are our attitudes towards war shaped by our own experience of being are lived bodies, always in danger of harm, but also able to work within our embodied experience, train the body, work within it, push it further? Rosie Kay’s work The body is the frontline: 5 Soldiers engages those questions- and other layers related to warfare in a subtle, nuanced and sensitive way.

Recent debates on modern warfare, from the invasions to Iraq and Afghanistan, to possible intervention in Syria, often neglect the effect foreign policy, weaved together in Cabinet Offices has on living, breathing bodies that execute them. The term “boots on the ground” is a strong example of that; we too often do not think of those who fill those boots as well as those who will be harmed by them. Rosie Kay’s work does just that. The audience sits on three sides of the stage and encounters the phenomenological world of being a soldier. From drill to banter, from battle to meltdown, the audience is invited to be transformed into those bodies filling army boots for a while. The experience is very strong. Kay’s engagement of repetition, intense physicality and expansive use of space makes the audience participatory within the life of a soldier. The sequences showing drill, attack, parachuting especially generate strong embodied responses while watching the piece; audiences’ hearts pound faster and bodies become more engrossed in the experience. The audience becomes part of the narrative and experiences the stress and adrenaline that intense training yields for the body participating in it. At the same time, we also get a glimpse into the world of the soldiers as individuals, each portraying different lives; there is exploration of sexuality within the military (the case is 4 male one female); we see the soldiers banter, play with each other, and sometimes bully each other. That shows us that whatever bodies may achieve through intense disciplining they remain each a story told within their own terms. The body used in war is someone’s body; a breathing, hurting, loving, playing and rejoicing body. But also a fighting body.

One central theme in the work is the idea of injury. Kay talks very openly about the relationship between the development of the work and her own experience of injury, the embodied experience dreaded most by dancers, which vocationally puts their own life story at threat. That phenomenological fear is shared by soldiers. One’s ability to engage the body in intense discipline ends when the body gives way, collapses, and can no longer tolerate the acute stress entailed by its use. The work shows the experience of amputation from within and without; from the effort to support the injured to the moment in which they realize in the end of the day it is for themselves to make amends with their maimed body; it is their own phenomenological experience to work through; it is their own body they need to carry on in life. The discourse around war injuries can move from glorification to pity but Kay does not fall into either. We get a glimpse, as spectators, into the lives of human beings who have to deal with severe physical injuries throughout their lives. We are invited to share, even for a brief period of time, in the experience of moving from a vocation demanding intense physicality to exploration of the body’s most severe vulnerability.

One issue that remains implicit- though hugely important for the work’s message- is the question: who gets to discuss the ethics of war and who are those voices who contribute to the argument? There is a discrepancy between decision makers in issues of warfare in our society, coming from the establishment, broadly construed, mostly male and white, and those bodies which pay the price for ill-fated decisions but can never voice their own experience of war, to be taken into account in further discussions. They will remain boots, not the legs filling them. And here perhaps is Kay’s most significant contribution to discussion of war through choreography. Creating moments of embodied empathy between the soldiers- performers and the audience, she shows us that all our voices should be taken into account when war is discussed. Kay’s work creates a unique embodied dialogue, exploring fears and vulnerabilities which are an essential part of being a human being within a lived body. We hear much discussion of use of drones, computers, “modern” types of warfare, but we must remind ourselves that the human body, always precarious, always triumphant, always rejoicing, loving, fighting, hurting is the first and foremost element of war. Thus we must not let power structures which deem some voices more worthy than others in those discussions allow for the effacing of this essential feature of warfare. Rosie Kay’s work allows the spectators, for just over an hour, to explore their deepest fears, vulnerabilities, anxieties, all lived through the moving body. The body may be the frontline- and always in the frontline- but it can always be utilized to think, talk, and criticize its use and its abuse in power structures. 5 Soldiers does just that.

Dana Mills

4th May 2015