Five soldiers are waiting; Cadet Luke Bradshaw casually adjusts a transistor radio playing mostly static interference and portions of a local jazz station. Cadet Josh Hutchby does random pushups, Alan Hunte and Trooper Alexander Smith pick their noses in unison, pushing and shoving each other like school-age brothers, as the only female cadet (Harriet Ellis) sits on her rucksack eating candy and successfully tossing them one at a time into the mouths of Hunte and Smith. The stage is fully lit as the audience trickles in the Atrium Theater to begin the tedious process of waiting along with the five soldiers. The audience waits for a signal as to when the performance is truly beginning as the soldiers await their next orders, drills and ultimate deployment.
“5 Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline” is British choreographer Rosie Kay’s comprehensive evening-length work based on her extensive research with the British Army. To get a bird’s eye view, Kay joined the all-male 4th Battalion the Rifles infantry during their pre-deployment training in 2008, between the Iraq and Afghanistan tours. “5 Soldiers” is a rightfully acclaimed, work-in-process that premiered in 2010 and includes real-life Trooper Alexander Smith as part of the dance company. Much of its staging and choreography holds to the literal, with hormonal soldiers pointing guns, marching or running in formation, roughhousing, competing, and includes the much-needed relief of an impromptu lip sync dance club anthem and would-be drag show. Each segment flows effortlessly into one seamless whole, with timing being tastefully sharp and to the point. The choreography is relentlessly physical and at times brutal–a nonstop boot camp of lunges, military crawls, and parachute jumps that include the complexities of psychological minefields, emotional fallout and testosterone fueled tempers that ignite combat stress and posttraumatic stress disorder.
To not reference the sexual component of this macho reality, and how sexuality drives and also distorts this testosterone landscape in ways that are likely even more confusing than perhaps for civilians would have been an error, but Kay has included a segment where Hutchby and Bradshaw attempt a relationship with Ellis, the female cadet. Hutchby tries his best muscle flexing maneuvers, even futilely attempting to lure Ellis by pulling rank on her, but he is no competition for the brawny Bradshaw who momentarily wins her attention, leaving Hutchby to anxiously witnesses their sexually charged dance. Ellis shows her own layers of carnal complexity beginning with a simple reclaiming of her femininity and sexuality when washing herself in her skivvies that escalates into a frenetic over powdering of her arms and legs as if self-pleasuring, before erupting into a sort of stripper dancing sequence. She both seduces and ambivalently pushes Bradshaw away, as the other cadets, walk around them like a pack of hungry wolves. Their duet is as gymnastic and sweaty as their drills, Ellis’ with her legs wrapped around Bradshaw as he spins her in space. Their circumstance-driven affair inspires Alan Hunte and Trooper Alexander Smith into more competitive pushups and arm wrestling that boils over into homoerotic glimpses and homophobic moments that they both don’t know how to handle, responding with more psychological flexing that erupts into maddening movement and uncontrollable behaviors. The performance gives each dancer their share of solos as well as mental breakdowns that are understood and accepted by the intimate staring into each other’s eyes or a simple nod that everything is ok by the rest of the infantry.
“5 Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline” builds in tension becoming, increasingly dramatic and poetic, as in a helicopter sequence when composer Annie Mahtani’s soundcape goes from the high-volume blade slapping of helicopters into an aria, with Mike Gunning’s lighting creating the inside of a helicopter and the opening into which the paratroopers will soon dive into. The jump feels real, their movements authentic, as dancers on their bellies appear airborne. When Alan Hunte falls away from the others, he spins like the blades taking center stage, as if tangled in them, spinning dizzily around and around until collapsing as if shot. At first dancers carry him as the dead but soon manipulate his body by strapping his calves to his hamstrings revealing he survived but is now disabled. He eventually triumphs, walking on his knees after many attempts to walk on the feet of his shorter legs, falling, getting up, and falling again. “5 Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline” is a tour de force (pun intended), pure stamina and adrenaline, both smart and pedestrian, violent that maintains a level of innocents.
David E. Moreno