Thursday, October 19, 2017

Soldier Still (Junk Ensemble) - shedding the damaged skin of the traumatic military #BelFest

Soldier Still explores violence and trauma through the mode of dance. Junk Ensemble’s latest production ran for two nights in The MAC as part of Belfast International Arts Festival.

The piece is based on testimony from former soldiers from both sides of the Irish border as well as civilians and a child survivor from the Bosnian conflict. I spoke to the sibling choreographers, Megan and Jessica Kennedy, for a preview piece published on Culture Northern Ireland.
When I think about PTSD, talking therapies come to mind long before dance. Yet sibling choreographers Megan and Jessica Kennedy found researchers like Dr Bessel van der Kolk, whose scholarship shows that therapies which use the body can be more successful than traditional talking treatments.

First World War soldiers suffered from what was then called ‘shell shock’ and the trauma was often physically visible in their bodies through tremors and their inability to walk.

'We experience trauma through our body and we need to let go of trauma through our body,' explains Jessica, ahead of the forthcoming performance Soldier Still as part of Belfast International Arts Festival. 'We’re looking at alternative therapies that a minority of soldiers have employed, but have had higher success rates than yoga, meditation and even talking therapy.'

For a non-dancer like me who sometimes struggles to understand dance performances, Soldier Still is remarkable accessible. Short snippets of dialogue taken from the research interviews stop the audience having to guess everything from the movements. Dancers pick up some of these moments, including abuse in the parade ground and the after-effect of an artillery shell exploding nearby.

The often silent on stage presence of Dr Tom Clonan, a former Captain in the Irish Defence Forces, is a uniformed representation of the military machine that is “inherently destructive” and sees abuse and trauma but often does not intervene in a positive manner.

The total immersion of life into the military is quickly established with the putting on of the uniform, and later the shedding of this damaged skin like a metamorphosing caterpillar is captured in a beautiful solo sequence by Julie Koenig. (Though it leaves a question about female nudity versus the impact if it had been a man floating in my mind.)

At times the four professional dancers move as if they are in formation on a parade ground, with one falling out of step, but then being pulled back into the conformity. One person habitually bears enormous weights – Lucia Kickham carries one of the male dancers around the stage on her back – even when their character has left the army.

The threads of each character are woven together and leave the impression that it as probably as hard to shake off military service (with your constant preparedness to kill) as it is recovering from the trauma that results from being innocently involved in conflict.

It’s clear to see why Soldier Still picked up Best Design Award at the Dublin Fringe Festival. The set, lighting, sound, and costumes all combine to strongly support the choreography and intermittent dialogue.

The rivulets of coloured paint running down the back wall of the stage add intrigue and detail to the overall staging, as well as creating a flag in the shallow well underneath that emphasises nationhood and serving a country.

Soldier Still is an intelligent, thought-provoking production, which succeeded in meshing a non-performer in with the professional troupe in a way that added rather than subtracted.

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