Monday, June 01, 2015

5 Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline (Home from Home, Manchester)

Note: Although this production was promoted by Home, it actually took place in the more fitting location of Rusholme Army Reserve Centre, Manchester.

The human body really is the front line in almost everything we do, whether that be warfare, weightlifting or washing up. What our mind wants to do, the body fulfils, and that is the theme for Rosie Kay's 5 Soldiers, which looks at how the human body remains essential to war, even in the 21st century when we have missiles, drones and mines to do our dirtiest work remotely.

The choreography starts off as militaristic, regimented, stiff and repetitive, but that's because activities such as drilling, marching and training are at the heart of every soldier's professional existence. Whether on a reserve army camp in the UK, or in the thick of the battlefield in Afghanistan or Iraq, a soldier's life is informed and shaped by everyday routine. That knowledge gives the soldier a template for his or her existence, and gives something to focus on amid the horrors all about.

Over the course of the piece we see the five soldiers - four male, one female - integrate as one unit, and we see that the army provides a replacement family for those serving away from home. These comrades eat and sleep together, train and march together, and ultimately fight together. It is this close-knit relationship out in the field which pulls them through the worst times, and we see the soldiers helping one another on the battlefield when troubled, lost or injured.

We also see the darker side of that family unit, as all families have - the fights and the disagreements, the violence and the teasing. In such a masculine world as soldiering, this is accentuated by some pretty convincing rough 'n' tumble on the stage. But a good dancer knows how to fall well, and these five do just that.

We see the soldiers kicking back and letting their hair down (in Shelley Eva Haden's case, doing exactly that) during their leave period. The men go out, dance, get drunk and ogle women, while the female soldier invests most of her spare time in herself, making herself feel good and look good. Female soldiers can be just as tough and indefatigable as their male counterparts, but when it comes to the crunch, only the women can strip down to their bra and pants and lace themselves with talcum powder. Well, the blokes could probably do that too if they wanted, but the dichotomy of soldiering and homosexuality isn't really touched upon here, even if the homo-eroticism of that world is.

There's some beautiful use of projection toward the end of the piece when the soldiers sit hunched up in a helicopter, packs on their back, ready to jump out and parachute their way to the ground. We see the opening in the copter floor and the rumble of the ground far beneath speeding by. Very effective, if a little long-winded in the execution. But again, that repetitive mundanity of soldiering.

The piece also touches upon the emotional debt paid by our armed forces - the psychological scarring warfare has on a fighter through shell-shock, Gulf War Syndrome, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - call it what you will. The name is irrelevant, but the way our soldiers suffer mentally should never be overlooked. Or, indeed, untreated.

The sucker punch served up by the entire piece is the inevitable moment when a soldier loses a limb, or in this case, limbs. How dancer Oliver Russell accomplishes this, I do not know - after spinning like a helicopter for what seems like an age, and then not collapsing to the floor in a dizzy heap as I would, he then has his lower legs strapped up and proceeds to dance on his knees - stumps left by a double amputation. This climax is heartbreaking and deeply powerful: seeing Russell struggle around the stage on his knees, trying to learn to walk once more, just as all of those real-life soldiers maimed in war have to do, is intensely moving. The piece ends with Russell marching forward, on his "stumps", into a dying spotlight. There could be no better way to end the routine, or to bring home to the audience just how much of a front line the human body is.

5 Soldiers is a powerful study of what it's like to be a soldier in 2015, but it isn't necessarily specific to now. A soldier today is as much of a hero as a soldier from 1915, and his body is in just as much danger. All in the name of Government, Queen and Country.

Ultimately, what our politicians' minds want to do, the bodies of our armed forces fulfil. But is that exchange of duties really fair when you consider the consequences?

Boy Soldier

The curtain-raiser for 5 Soldiers at Rusholme was a 15-minute work by Sam Broadbent in collaboration with 12 young dancer from Commotions Boys' Youth Dance Company, the Lord of the Flies legacy group and others from across the North West. A good deal of the choreography was similar to that seen in the subsequent "main feature" (even down to the ending, with a soldier marching inexorably into a dying light), but it showed that there is an impressive groundswell of dance talent in the Manchester area which should be supported and encouraged by schemes such as this. The routine focused on the 250,000 under-age soldiers who fought for Britain during the First World War and demonstrated the youth and innocence which was destroyed by the horrors of war 100 years ago. These were boys, just children. But their journey to the battlefields of Europe made their teenaged bodies just as much of a front line as their adult contemporaries. A brave and enjoyable piece.

The stats
Boy Soldier
Choreographers: Sam Broadbent and the company of dancers
Music: Pack Up Your Troubles by Murray Johnson; Powerplant by Shackleton; Rostro by Murcof; Elevation by Hildur Gudnadottir
Performers: Adam Ali, Samuel Bluck, Dominic Coffey, Eoin Fyfe, Morgan Fairhurst, Barnabas Hathaway, Josh Hutchby, Will Macdonald, Matthew Mantel, Joshua Toft-Wild, Connor Wells, Adam Wintle
5 Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline
Choreographer: Rosie Kay
Music: Annie Mahtani
Performers: Duncan Anderson, Sean Marcs, Oliver Russell, Chester Hayes, Shelley Eva Haden
Performed at Rusholme Army Reserve Centre, Manchester, May 29 to 30, 2015 (on behalf of Home, Manchester). Performance reviewed: May 30, 2015

5 Soldiers on Home website (retrieved Jun 1 2015)
5 Soldiers on the Rosie Kay Dance Company website (retrieved Jun 1 2015)
5 Soldiers teaser trailer (retrieved Jun 1 2015)
Veterans UK website (retrieved Jun 1 2015)
The Veterans' Charity website (retrieved Jun 1 2015)
Combat Stress website (retrieved Jun 1 2015)

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