Megan and Jessica Kennedy, founders and Artistic Directors of acclaimed dance company Junk Ensemble, write for Culture about their critically acclaimed production Soldier Still, which tours venues nationwide from 1-22 November. 

The initial idea for Soldier Still came from a project that Jessica was invited to collaborate on with a German artist based in Belfast, working with the British army in barracks stationed outside Belfast. This experience was combined with inspiration from a beautiful film called Beau Travail which details the French Foreign Legion training in North African desert landscapes and sea, and combines army drills, yoga and contemporary dance as the choreography of the soldiers. The soldiers’ physicality is a combination of masculine and aggressive movements dualed with fluid and vulnerable actions, and creates an unsettling choreography.

The research process for Soldier Still took place over a period of a year. We (Megan and Jessica) arranged interviews with fourteen former and current soldiers from the Irish Defence Force, British Special Forces and the Bosnian war and two civilans (Irish and Bosnian). We wanted to hear stories from soldiers: the details of being a soldier and asked questions about the daily routine, the smells, the sounds, their strongest memories there and if they missed the army. We asked how easily a de-commissioned soldier could fit back into society and back into one’s previous life and we asked the soldiers and civilians about their experience of violence and how it has impacted their lives - what traces remain. We noticed that there was a pattern of themes developing in the interviews that the soldiers spoke about, which included not fitting back into society, masculinity, bravado, shedding one’s previous life, survival instinct (fight or flight), daily routine & order, self-destruction and trauma, and the experience of the army becoming one’s new family.

Throughout the production, we attempt to show a poetic perspective of the impact of violence on human beings and the indelible traces that trauma leaves behind.

One of the former soldiers we met was Dr Tom Clonan, a former Captain of the Irish Defence Forces and Irish Times Security Analysis. We had a two-hour conversation where Tom spoke openly and eloquently about his time as a soldier in the Defence Force, his tours in Lebanon and Bosnia, his return to Ireland, and his ways of dealing with the trauma. Tom had an relaxed performative energy to his conversation as well as a vulnerability and hope in the way he spoke about the army. Although we hadn’t planned it, we asked Tom to perform in the work quite soon after meeting him and he surprised us with an unequivocal yes to everything. He joined four other dance artists in the process and creation of Soldier Still, informing the work through his personal stories and experiences and we continued to challenge his expectations of his performance in the piece, ending with a beautiful dance solo performed by Tom.

Junk Ensemble co-founders Megan and Jessica Kennedy

The devising process in the studio was a mixture of movement tasks, images and texts informed by the soldiers’ recorded interviews. We transcribed the interviews in order to explore text possibilities with the performers in the studio. We hear some of the interviews in the production through a mix of recordings and verbatim text performed live by the dancers. One of the more difficult things about the process was finding a place for all the text and recordings, which we wanted to honour fully in the piece. However, we found that many of the recordings resonated more poetically when interpreted through movement rather than spoken, deeply capturing the trauma and violence.

We wanted to hear stories from soldiers: the details of being a soldier and asked questions about the daily routine, the smells, the sounds, their strongest memories there and if they missed the army.

In the studio with the dancers and Tom, we explored the viciousness and vulnerability of conflict and trauma through the movement tasks given. Each of the performers brought their own individuality and experience to the process, which helped inform the material and brought a distinctive sensibility to the work. We were interested in exploring the idea of the individual versus the collective and began researching individual characteristics for each of the dancers, which juxtapose parts of the piece when they work as a unit, a collective whole. Much of the choreography near the end of the piece is centred around clothes grabbing and clothes pulling, showing both brutality and tenderness between the performers. This idea came from three sources: the violence we witness in combat, the brusque way bodies are thrown about during conflict, and the care of a soldier trying to help a fellow soldier who is fatally injured.

From Soldier Still

Our collaboration with the design team for Soldier Still was a unique one as we started the process quite early and devised the design as a team of six. The creative team comprises of Sabine Dargent on set, Sarah Jane Shiels on lighting, Denis Clohessy on composition and sound design, and Sarah Foley on costume. We met over a period of two years throwing initial ideas on the table and poring over photography books, images, and exhibitions by the Chinese visual artist Cai Guo Qiang. Each designer contributed to the other designs in some way or another and we found this process exciting to be part of in addition to informing the content of the choreographic material.

The production is enhanced by a set design of a large gutter which spills out different coloured paints slowly throughout the performance. A flag of colour is created along the back wall and pours into a pool of paint, which the dancers move in and out of. This movement leaves a residue and trace of their steps on the floor which is lit by UV light in the final scene of the piece, giving the audience a last impresssion of witnessing the end of a crime scene. Throughout the production we attempt to show a poetic perspective of the impact of violence on human beings and the indelible traces that trauma leaves behind.

Soldier Still tours at venues nationwide from from 1-22 November - more details here.