JUNK ENSEMBLE
THE ARTS REVIEW

Soldier Still ★★★★★

Dublin Fringe Festival 2017

Chris O’Rourke

11 September 2017

The blurb for Junk Ensemble’s powerful new work, “Soldier Still,” is somewhat misleading. Purporting to be about violence, it’s really about violence in a particular context. That context being how the military refashions men and women into killers against their natural instincts. This is a crucial distinction, for when it comes to violence, even violence in the military, there’s so much that “Soldier Still” doesn’t begin to say. But what it does say it says with raw power and a palpable elegance, in a stirring, multi-disciplinary piece of dance theatre as important as it is sublime.

In “Soldier Still” a military officer begins dressing on stage followed shortly by four dancers, two men and two women. The gravitational centre around which everything revolves, the officer's presence, gaze and voice become irresistible choke chains urging, restraining, instructing and informing every movement, look, or gesture. Throughout, his power is unquestioned even when standing motionless. A short group sequence, wherein four dancers, heads bobbing like chickens or fighting hens, swarm about the stage forming groups, duets and solos establishes a pattern, and a process, repeated throughout the performance. Voiceovers regularly punctuate a remarkably evocative soundtrack with information on the State and the military, on conditioning soldiers to kill, or with tales of actual killing.

Meanwhile tales are told of, and through, the body, a site for a choreographic evocation of the tortured and twisted mind of a victim-come-killer. Group sequences reveal the mob mentality behind the military mindset, its exclusion of those different from the brotherhood because they don’t understand, are too weak, or weren’t there. Other group sequences evoke scenes of murder, or piles of corpses. Powerful duets and solos heighten a sense of the intimacy and individuality being destroyed by regimented violence. Wild left hooks, puppet like gestures, tortured faces and jittering bodies tell of pain and entrapment, of a need to shed your own skin, of carrying 40lbs or people on your back long after you need to. In the end, the cost of violence may take you so far that the call to come back may be too feeble, or come too late. For coming back can also mean revisiting the dark, the damage, and the impossible memories. A place you don't want to go. Instead, Frankenstein's children head off alone, often unable too find their way back to the light.

Directed and choreographed by Jessica and Megan Kennedy, “Soldier Still” deals in physical movement sequences imbued with a fluidity and rigour that borders on the poetic in places. Dancers Geir Hytten, Lucia Kickham, Julie Koenig, and Fernando Balsera Pita form an extraordinary ensemble, delivering exquisite group sequences and duets. Solos are equally sublime, indeed often more so. Koenig’s extraordinary skin shedding rag-doll routine, Kickham’s boxing movements, Hytten’s PTSD pattern, and Pita’s distorted face sequences are each individually exquisite. Dr. Tom Clonan as the military Doctor Frankenstein creating his army of obedient, and unquestioning, killing machines, making monsters out of people by killing what’s best in them, commands the stage with a quiet but firm authority. Sarah Jane Shiels lighting is beautifully executed, as is a near show stealing score and sound design by Denis Clohessy, around which the whole experience coalesces.

Yet not everything always works as well as it might. Pace drags a little in some sequences and a somewhat arid and restrictive text becomes the least successful aspect of this rich, multi-disciplinary work. If individual stories engage, facts fail to convincingly make for a compelling enough argument by stating the obvious and not really saying anything new. We already know the State makes soldiers who kill, know about breaking down an individual's will through rigorous training that, under different contexts, would constitute abuse. There was an opportunity here for other, unspoken things to have been said, or explored, an opportunity that wasn’t taken.

“Soldier Still” doesn't say everything that needs to be said on the subject of military violence. That would be impossible anyway. But it does acknowledge it as a pressing issue, and attempts to open up a conversation on one of the unspoken taboos of modern society. It might seem easy to dismiss it by arguing we will always need soldiers to protect us, and soldiers have to be killers. But that’s not the issue here. It is estimated that up to 10% of male inmates in UK prisons are ex-military. More in the United States. Indeed, one of the most worrying trends in US gang culture is the increasing number of highly trained, ex-military personnel who are now joining their ranks, unable to readjust once their military killing is done. Stirring, poignant, and profoundly thought provoking, “Soldier Still” raises some important questions. Weaving its rich tapestry of visual, musical, and choreographic excellence, "Soldier Still" is not to be missed.