Ask not what Dance can do for you but what YOU can do for Dance.
Rosie Kay’s "brave new dance" is transforming hearts and minds everywhere.
Rosie Kay, a contemporary dance choreographer, founder of the Rosie Kay Dance Company and the first ever Leverhulme Artist in Residence at the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, University of Oxford, recently choreographed a piece called ‘5 Soldiers – The Body is the Frontline’ which has blown-away (in a manner of speaking) both it’s military and non-military audience.
Picturing a military audience enthusing about a piece of contemporary dance is not easy. But when you see it, you understand why. You also understand that the year of research that Rosie Kaye spent undergoing the full battle exercises with troops at The 4th Battalion, The Rifles, and military rehabilitation centres, fully paid off. Her point is that there are more commonalities than differences in the life of a dancer and that of a soldier, when one focuses on the body as ‘the frontline’. These include: the physical discipline of training, stamina and endurance, physical intelligence, synchronised and choreographed moves, listening, improvisation, hardship, pain and in the worst case scenario, betrayal, injury and disability. The reaction amongst the military especially was often life-changing. As Rosie notes “Tough soldiers, who would never see dance, are transformed by the end and talk openly to us about their experiences, sometimes for the first time.”
The Rosie Kay Dance Company’s mission “Brave new dance that thrills and moves people” is well on its way to engaging a diverse public addressing current social and political concerns. In the last 12 months, it has worked with 45 artists, 500 participants, had live audiences of 8260 and reached over 250,000 through online broadcast.
It also succeeds in engaging participants in its outreach work from the hardest to reach parts of society. Participants in outreach workshops work on a ‘response’ piece which they devise with an appointed local dance artist over 8 weeks and eventually perform as a "curtain raiser" to a paying audience. So far, 90% of participants have said that they ‘have tried new things and think differently” as a result.
The RKDC’s next work is ‘Romeo and Juliet’ which will be set in present day Birmingham viewed through a lens of forced/arranged child marriage and love across ethnic divides in South Asian and diverse communities. Community engagement projects for this include disabled choreographer development with a UK tour planned for 2019-20.
Writing about her research for this, Rosie shared this with us:
“At the moment, I’ve spent a week alone in a theatre, dancing out each role and getting into the mindset of the characters. I’m struck by the emotion and hormones of the teenagers and their passion for one another. I’m also struck by how the adults hold the power, and the society for the young people is ruled by ancient feuds, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere with so little hope of escape. I’m also interested in the murder scene of Mercutio, and Romeo’s reaction to revenge his death by killing Tybalt. I’m thinking about why young people may carry knifes, and the combination of fear, adrenaline, revenge and hormones that leads to a fatal stabbing, and how Romeo knows he has not only killed a life but ruined his own life and that of Juliet forever in that one action.”
As the company moves forward fortified by the executive leadership of James Preston, the RosieKay Dance Company is at the forefront of pioneering dance creation and it’s strong participation ethos should ensure that contemporary dance opens minds as well as doors while expressively engaging with the challenging issues of our times.
Interview with Rosie Kay, Founder Rosie Kay Dance Company
PW: What is unique about how dance can express, question and provoke?
What I love about dance is that while making it, I can express several ideas one after another or all at once, and not settle on only one message. This means that as an audience member you need to be involved with the performance- you are watching, you are decoding the dance, you are reading the meaning, but you also feel the dance and the dancers in a visceral way. In dance we call this kinesthetic empathy- it’s about being able to illicit empathy through your dance, and I’ve been working with neuroscientists to see if we can identify this effect in the brain.
5 Soldiers has been a remarkable work, in that it provokes a strong response from civilians and soldiers alike. The soldiers see the work, and it takes them back to their basic training, it reminds them of the love and hate they had for their colleagues. The warfare scenes are well observed and portrayed, with good ‘field-craft’ that take soldiers back to their experience of the front. Tough soldiers, who would never see dance, are transformed by the end and talk openly to us about their experiences, sometimes for the first time. The public actually get an experience where they feel what it might feel like to be a soldier, and through this they say they will never look at a soldier in the same way again. We knew the work had real power, but we were still very surprised when the British Army approached us to do another tour to military bases, with full support. We really feel that through this work we change hearts and minds, and humanize a subject that is often very politicised, or masked behind media representation. We take it right back to the humans involved and make audiences feel empathy.
PW: I am very curious about what it was like for you winning the Leverhulme residency - that is really impressive and must have been quite an experience!
My year at Oxford was a wonderful experience. I’d been invited to talk at Oxford about a neuroscience project I was involved with, and I mentioned my work with the British Army. This lead to a Professor of Anthropology, Professor Stanley Ulijaszek, comparing my research methods to that of an ethnographer; going into small societies and observing and participating.
Over the year I had an incredible time, attending lectures, delivering departmental seminars and workshops to academics (some of them physical), and even creating the first work of dance performed in the historic Pitt Rivers Museum with students. But the main focus of my research was working with women with eating disorders, and creating a programme of workshops that helped them train, choreograph and then perform their own solos about their eating disordered experience. We then interviewed the participants about their choreographed work and the creative process, and published our results in the Medical Humanities Journal. Eating Disorders are a much misunderstood condition by the public and hard to treat within the medical community. These danced solos helped to illuminate a condition that affects the body and mind and brought new awareness of the nature of the condition.
PW: How did you first know that you wanted to be a choreographer?
Dance has probably been an essential part of my life since I remember. My parents talk of me dancing in the waves on holiday as a toddler, and at my first dance class at age three, I felt as if I’d found my true home. I was probably quite an annoying child; I was directing plays and dances at my primary school, and writing scripts and producing work all through school. I may have been born a choreographer, but I had no idea you could do it as a profession- it seemed so out of my league. I attended a dance school audition with a friend, and realised I had the opportunity to pursue it seriously. I also discovered contemporary dance; a form of dance that was technical, demanded expertise (as much as ballet), but also crossed into the fields of art, music, design, history and could be socio-political. It was while I was at London Contemporary Dance School that I realised I wanted to make my own kind of dance theatre. I danced abroad for six years, then returned to the UK and built up my company and my work in my adopted home of Birmingham.
PW: What would the RK dance company do with £10,000?
It would make a huge difference to us. The £10,000 would go towards research for Romeo and Juliet. I want to spend time with communities, with charities and with the local police force to really understand what is happening in my local communities. I think I know this city that I live in, but I probably don’t.
The money would help me by allowing me the time to really get to know people and gain access, and I want to set up links and deliver our (award-winning) community engagement work with local young people.
These young people would get training form a Rosie Kay Dance Company dance leader, and then they would be part of the show when we premiere in 2019 at The REP. The funding would allow the research and the community engagement work to flourish.
PW: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Well, first of all, I’m a night person not a morning person, so that actually helps with my job with performances every evening, but it means I am always a bit slow in the morning! I get woken up by my 3-year-old boy Gabriel, who knocks on the door then comes in for a cuddle. My husband normally helps prepare the breakfast, and due to dancing all these years, I do a bit of warm up to get my joints moving in the morning on my Pilates machine. After a coffee, I’m ready to face the world again!