It takes courage to perform alone, on a large stage, in front of a live audience for the best part of an hour and that fortitude must be magnified further when the soloist had not performed for many years and the show had to be prepared twice due to lockdown restrictions. Just two days after those restrictions were lifted, Rosie Kay got to show her full mettle in Absolute Solo II, which premiered in front of a socially-distanced and spellbound audience at the Birmingham Rep. The programme comprised two contrasting solos – Artemis Clown and Adult Female Dancer – separated by archive film of Patisserie, an award-winning solo performed by Kay at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1999.

Adult Female Dancer: Rosie Kay
© Brian Slater

After many years of choreographing work on others, Kay’s courage in once again treading the boards herself was also heightened by the intensely autobiographical account of her life in the world premiere of Adult Female Dancer, a thoroughly absorbing mix of Kay’s own voiceover and musical interludes matched to explosive sequences of movement, full of individualised meaning. Kay’s recorded voiceover explained that her brother had died one year and one month before she was born and her own pregnancy and confinement was also life-threatening, although these emergencies were thankfully overcome. The programme was dedicated to Kay’s father, Stefan, who had died in February, and one sensed that memories of him still loomed large throughout her performance.

A particularly impactful section had Kay performing along strips of light, resembling fencing pistes laid alongside each other, while her own voiceover listed a catalogue of injuries and illnesses during her dance career: such a frightful itinerary of bone breaks, sprains, dislocations and serious ailments that it is surprising Kay had time left to dance at all; the clear implication being that she often danced injured, because she had to, underlining the simple truth that understudies are an impractical luxury for an emerging choreographer setting work on herself. Kay may have danced injured but this section ended with a touch of humour when her voiceover affirmed that she had never danced on stage after drinking alcohol (although adding that she had often danced drunk in other places)! Chillingly, Kay provided her own #MeToo moment when listing the abuses she received as an adolescent, including being harassed at 10 and raped at 16. In yet further proof of her courage as a performer, Kay seems to have left no stone unturned in this stoic confessional.

The absorbing candour of these private revelations is offset by several musical interludes as, for example, when Kay performed an uplifting and emotional solo to Ennio Morricone’s Chi Mai – a piece of music that seemed to be ubiquitous for TV themes in the 1970s (and was – together with Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony – responsible for giving this reviewer a first love of orchestral music). The musical eclecticism of Adult Female Dancer ranged from Patti Smith (Gloria), and Brian Eno (Deep Blue Day) to the aforementioned Morricone and Henry Mancini (Wait Until Dark) through to  Bach (extracts from Goldberg Variations and Partita no. 2, performed by Glenn Gould). Something for every taste in a score of surprising versatility.   

The ten-minute Patisserie film from the original Absolute Solo was an early example of Kay’s ability to mix humorous text (this time spoken live within the performance) and descriptive movement. Filmed in 1999, it showed Kay’s lithe and flexible movement skills, exhibiting both strength and subtlety, interpreting text that she had derived from interviewing young Polish women about their appearance. 

Made in 2018 for Eliot Smith Dance Company, Kay has now adopted Artemis Clown for her own use. The work exists within a neo-baroque envelope constructed in music, costume and choreographic motifs. The principal score comes from the first and third volumes of György Kurtág’s Játékok, an ongoing series of compositions inspired by the spontaneity of children at play, mixed with extracts of Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto grosso and Ravel’s haunting Pavane pour une infante défunte. Louis Price has designed a striking costume for Kay, comprising a striped tunic with frilled sleeves and lightly pleated skirt over three-quarter length, loose-fitting gold pantaloons, which enhanced the courtly ethos. Kay’s choreography places neoclassical lines onto a strong contemporary base and within a context that seemed, by turns, to be both intensely serious and comical.

The clarion call for women leaders in dance is a common refrain. Thankfully, they are no longer a rarity in the world of dance creatives and the pioneering and adventurous mind of Rosie Kay has provided a role model over the past two decades. Her restless spirit of inquiry has taken Kay on a journey through religion, asylum seekers, the army and MK Ultra conspiracy. And, now, after an absence of many years, it has taken her back to once again realise the potential of her own body.