First published in The Times, Friday May 13 2016
On the face of it, the worlds of contemporary dance and the military make for unlikely bedfellows. Yet, for much of this three-part dance piece, the fruits of choreographer Kay and her company being embedded with a battalion, the use of movement to illuminate aspects of army life makes perfect sense.
“The body is the frontline” is the strapline to the performance, and the choreography is at its purest in the opening sequence: a hypnotic square-bashing routine, rendered with uncanny precision by the five-strong company to a spare soundtrack of percussive foot movements and audible rhythmic breathing. As you would expect, the physical stamina on display is extraordinary; within minutes the sweat is falling from the dancers’ faces.
Pic: Maria Falconer
Kay then proceeds to deepen her exploration of the tension between the necessary conformity of military life versus the need for individual expression. This may be a familiar theme in contemporary dance but it’s given fresh poignancy in this setting, with the performers occasionally peeling off from the group for brief passages of fluid movement or to offer little character motifs denoting a suppressed vulnerability or expressions of age, rank or gender.
Kay injects narrative into the second part, as the soldiers escape the rigours of training and stretches of boredom and anxious waiting to let their hair down on a night out. As the four male recruits drink and dance (badly), the cooperation of barracks life gives way to rivalry as the boys compete for the attentions of the company’s single female soldier (Shelley Eva Haden). High jinks develop into pushing and shoving. One recruit pushes his clumsy amorous advances to aggressive levels. It is an uneasy scene and Kay is to be applauded for confronting less flattering aspects of male group behaviour.
Pic: Maria Falconer
In this light, though, there’s something disappointing about the final sequence, in which we follow the recruits as they sky dive from a helicopter and grope across unfamiliar territory. Scenes of loneliness, injury and painstaking recovery are rendered in movement that feels literal compared to the startling imagery of the first half. The use of video, including scenes viewed from the helicopter feel familiar from war-as-hell movies such as Apocalypse Now.
Like that film, the mix of beauty and brutality in this piece finds reflection in a diverse soundtrack, which mixes Annie Mahtani’s minimalist compositions with Katy Perry and Pergolesi. 5 Soldiers may frustrate at times but there’s no denying the rigour with which Kay approaches her subject, and the company matches this with performances of utter commitment.
Touring Scotland to May 28. 5soldiers.co.uk