Physical therapy: The dance theatre piece which helps treat an ex-army captain's PTSD

Junk Ensemble are back at Belfast International Arts Festival with Soldier Still, an award-winning production that brings military precision to choreographed movement

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.'

Having gone their separate ways to study, identical twins Jessica and Megan Kennedy came back together in 2004 to form the Junk Ensemble company in Dublin, specialising in dance theatre and physical theatre. Early work built on their own identity and closeness by examining themes of split personalities and schizophrenia before shifting to larger scale pieces, often performed outside of the theatre in non-conventional spaces.

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Junk Ensemble was last part of the Belfast Festival programme back in 2012 with The Falling Song – their piece about the dangerous relationship between flying and falling – and returned to the MAC in 2015 with Dusk Ahead.

Interdisciplinary working is one of the distinctive aspects of the company. 'We tend to work with a variety of different performers alongside professional dancers, including children, choirs, older people, young boy dancers, and even ex-soldiers in this piece,' says Jessica.

She feels that it’s apt that Soldier Still is coming to Belfast because some years ago they were approached by Peter Mutschler, the visual artist who co-directs and curates the city's PS² gallery, about a production involving soldiers based at Ballykinler. While the project didn’t go ahead due to calendar clashes, it was one of the catalysts that led to this piece.

The research behind the performance involved interviews with former soldiers from both sides of the Irish border as well as civilians and a child survivor from the Bosnian conflict. They were asked about the first violent event they witnessed or were party to. The interviews have been threaded together in the performance, sometimes expressed orally, sometimes through physical movement, showing what Jessica calls 'the traces left behind by violence'.

The dance piece hints at beauty and brutality, individuality and the collective will. This duality as well as violence are the two major themes explored in Soldier Still. As humans we’re not programmed to hurt or to kill, but the military does do that. That’s the sentiment of Dr Tom Clonan, describing the difference between civilian and soldiers.

He is a former captain in the Irish Defence Forces, having worked his way up from a lowly beginning as a cadet. He is now an academic and security analyst and what Megan and Jessica would describe as 'a non-performer'. Yet through Clonan’s involvement in the piece’s development and rehearsal, he has become the fifth performer in Soldier Still and even has his own dance solo towards the end of the piece.

Megan explains that their approach as choreographers and producers is 'to work with non-performers and make them professionals'.

'We have them working in our pieces – it’s challenging work for them – but what they give comes from them and allows them ownership of the piece, movement they’re comfortable with and text or a song that we’ve found a way to fit to them so they stand out as something special but don’t stick out like a sore thumb.'

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Megan admits that Clonan 'was really out of his depth on the first day of rehearsals, but he hid it well as he has a natural inclination for speaking in front of other people!' At the end of the process however, after having performed at the Dublin Fringe Festival, 'he is a dancer now,' she says. 'It’s really new to him [but] he really enjoys it and loved the process as much as we did.'

The five on-stage performers as well as the design team have become family, and Clonan has spoken of not feeling the same intimacy since he left the army; sharing a space with the dancers, the intimacy of the movements, and even the sharing dressing rooms echoing his time in the military.

And while he has written a couple of books about his experience of trauma in and after the army – his doctoral research revealed the widespread harassment and abuse of women in the Irish Defence Forces – and gone through his own process of self-therapy, the sisters say that he describes his involvement in the dance production as being incredibly therapeutic and dealing with the trauma in a way he hadn’t experienced before.

Transmitted through the piece are glimpses of not fitting in, wanting to return, disembodiment, addiction and substitution: all themes common to many people who have experienced trauma through conflict.

Soldier Still picked up the Best Design Award at the Dublin Fringe Festival and the team behind it are proud of how the different design elements – sound, set, costumes, light and choreography – have combined and collaborated to produce this intense work.

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Megan says that they were 'interested in showing violence through the choreography without being overtly violent'. So while there’s a 'hint and tinge' of violence in the choreography, there’s a deliberate absence of the literal smacking and hitting and kicking that might more obviously have found its way into the movements and direction. Instead other devices are used, including the musical score which subtly injects brutality through its beautiful string arpeggios.

This blend of spoken word with movement and music together with real stories and real people telling of both beauty and brutality is in the MAC on Tuesday 17 and Wednesday October 18. Tickets are available to book through both www.themaclive.com and www.belfastinternationalartsfestival.com or by calling the MAC box office on 028 9023 5053.