George Balanchine once compared the discipline of dancers to that of policemen, writing that while dancers “work just as hard as policemen, always alert, always tense”, the policeman does not “have to look beautiful at the same time”. In Junk Ensemble’s Soldier Still, choreographers and sisters Jessica and Megan Kennedy merge and destroy the binary of dance and state as identified by Balanchine. Junk Ensemble enlisted the accounts of soldiers and civilians to research and realize war’s deadly effects. Collaborators included Zlata Filipovic who witnessed the Bosnian war as a child, and performer Dr Tom Clonan who experienced the Israeli Operation “Grapes of Wrath” on tour duty in Lebanon in 1996. The collaborative process resulted in Soldier Still, a dance performance that attempts to make visible conflict’s traumatic wound.
Dance, for Junk Ensemble, becomes an appropriate medium for confronting military horror. The company of dancers become villains, victims and participants in a violent cycle of humiliation and torture. The dancers are skilled in confronting trauma’s violent repetition. With sincerity and artistry, they become the embodiment of the troubling and undeniable presence of unspeakable violence that is sanctioned in the context of war. Standout performer Julie Koenig merges artistry with technique and intention to paint a complex and devastating portrait of denial, pain, stress and isolation.
The Kennedy sisters’ choreography is amplified through Soldier Still’s music and sound design. Denis Clohessy’s score is both penetrative and evocative, echoing the clamour and cacophony of destruction. The dynamic scenography of Soldier Still on the other hand offers some respite, as it works to represent the humanity of the piece. Sarah Foley’s costume design plays an important role in an examination of hierarchy and vulnerability. Sabine Dargent collaborates with Sarah Jane Shiels in set and lighting to produce an aesthetic that is at once dynamic, visceral and playful.
Soldier Still represents the best in Irish dance theatre. The company’s ability to engage with the unspeakable makes a resounding case for the presence of contemporary dance in Ireland’s widening cultural canon.
By Sarah McKenna Barry