Talking won’t always help war-trauma victims. But dance might

Tom Clonan joins a cast of dancers who are finding new ways to describe the brutality of war

Since ancient times, movement, in the form of close order drill, helped shape a rabble of individuals into a mass military unit. But it can also help those in mass armies return to being individuals.

More recently, treatment for soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder has concentrated less on the verbal and more on the physical. This physical manifestation of trauma on those who have experienced brutality and violence is the dark inspiration for Soldier Still by dance company Junk Ensemble, in collaboration with ex-soldier and security analyst Dr Tom Clonan.

Maurice of Orange introduced constant military drill in the 1590s and in Keeping Together in Time, William McNeill claims that this made it safe to arm the poor, pay them pittance, and still secure obedience.

“The emotional resonance of daily and prolonged close-order drill created such a lively esprit de corps among the poverty-stricken peasant recruits and urban outcasts who came to constitute the rank and file of European armies, that other social ties faded into significance among them. Such troops soon came to constitute a cheap, reliable instrument in the hands of European statesmen and generals.”


In the heat of battle this sense of group cohesion is further augmented to a selfless camaraderie, where ‘I’ becomes ‘we’ and ‘my’ becomes ‘our’.

If unison movement has played a part in suppressing individuality, the body is also the site of trauma for soldiers attempting to move back to society.

However, post-traumatic stress disorder is regularly treated with more cerebral Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) and Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE), and studies have found these to be only marginally effective.

Bessel van der Kolk, a Boston-based psychiatrist and author of The Body Keeps the Score, claims that trauma victims need to process and release traumatic memories through their bodies.

As an alternative to drugs and talk therapy, he uses neurofeedback, mindfulness techniques, yoga, and Pesso Psychomotor Therapy, which was developed by Albert Pesso, a dancer who studied with Martha Graham.

Junk Ensemble directors Jessica and Megan Kennedy began researching Soldier Still more than two years ago. Initially, they wanted to work with current soldiers and approached the Irish Defence Force, who were interested in a film, but could not commit to live performances.

Turning their attention to individuals, they met with Tom Clonan, a former soldier with the Irish Army, and were struck by his insight and honesty in describing trauma and the difficulty in the dual role of soldier and civilian.

‘A very natural mover’

"After meeting Tom, we felt that he could have a speaking role in the piece with maybe some minimal movement," says Jessica Kennedy, in a break from rehearsals at DanceHouse.

"But he is a very natural mover, so now he is a lot more integrated with the dancers." Text and movement exist side-by-side throughout Soldier Still.

“Before starting work on the piece, we wanted to use text,” says Megan Kennedy.

“But the process and subject also seemed to demand it.”

Both choreographers interviewed ex-soldiers who had been in Northern Ireland, the Balkans and the Middle East, gathering hours of audio material that became part of composer Denis Clohessy’s soundscape.

“We haven’t created characters, there’s no narrative or cherry-picking the best soundbites,” she says.

“We just wanted to create a dramatic and emotional arc through the performance.”

Adding the text to movement had to be carefully judged. Junk Ensemble create works that are slippery and elusive, revelling in in-betweenness. Rather than dictating meaning, their dance illicits an emotional response.

“When we added some of the text to the movement, we found that it changed how you saw the movement,” says Jessica Kennedy.

“The movement became defined. Before you couldn’t define what exactly was going on, but you could feel it. Once you layered text on top of the movement it became black-and-white.”

No macho hero

Historically, war has been romanticised, whether in literature, film or videogames.

Even the returning traumatised soldier has been romanticised, leading to what Roy Scranton dubbed the "trauma hero myth".

In an essay in the LA Review of Books he traces simplistic depiction of the returning soldier through literature and film, from war poet Wilfred Owen to the book and 2014 movie American Sniper.

“This myth informs our politics, shapes our news reports, and underwrites our history. It dominates critical and scholarly interpretation of war literature, war movies, and the visual culture of war.

“It shapes how we understand Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and World War II, and it affects whom we vote for. Like all myths, this story frames and filters our perceptions of reality through a set of recognizable and comforting conventions.”

Junk Ensemble have been careful to side-step this cliché. The more they researched combat stress, the less they found this macho hero.

“Even a stereotypical soldier’s identity isn’t all masculine, but can have stereotypically feminine qualities like the quiet ability to take orders,” says Jessica Kennedy. Equally, the collection of interviews doesn’t coalesce into a single reading of the ex-soldier’s fate, but all mention the struggle to straddle the soldier and civilian identity.

“This creates a duality between past and present. What happened in the past interferes with them living in the present,” she says. “In the interviews, some soldiers described complete inertia, living neither in the past or present, and so feeling neither dead or alive.”

The here-and-nowness of dance is apposite for finding a physical language for this dislocation, in contrast to a black-and-white world, depicted literally through Sabine Dargent’s painted set. “There are no black-and-white answers to what is being presented,” says Megan Kennedy.

“What is being said is completely grey.”

Soldier Still is at Project Arts Centre Sept 9th to 14th as part of Dublin Fringe Festival; Mermaid Theatre on Sept 16th and The Mac Belfast on Oct 17th and 18th as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival.