Looking back, looking forward with Rosie Kay’s new show, Absolute Solo II

David Mead talks to the choreographer-dancer about getting back on stage

“I just felt this little tiny itch growing in me,” says Rosie Kay about her return to performance in the delayed premiere of her new show, Absolute Solo II, which is set to open at the Birmingham REP on May 19, just two days after theatres are allowed to admit audiences once more (Road Map permitting). “I wrote this proposal and just put it into Dance Hub. I didn’t tell anyone. I had never made a dance about myself, just about me. So, I thought maybe now’s the time, and they liked the idea.”

It’s been a while since British audiences have seen Rosie on stage, although visa issues for one of the company’s male dancers led her to stand in during the company’s 2020 US tour of 5 Soldiers, which proved stressful in other ways too as it took place just as COVID-19 was building.

Rosie Kay in Adult Female DancerPhoto Brian Slater
Rosie Kay in Adult Female Dancer
Photo Brian Slater

Apart from that, she last performed on stage in 2013, then had her son. “I did get myself back, but just for one show in 2015 at the Proms but “that was enough for me. Everyone says you’ll bounce straight back but it wasn’t as easy as that. You have to come to terms with the fact that you have a changed body. Losing your core is massive.”

Despite doing all the usual things to help bring that dancer’s body back, it just wasn’t working, Rosie explains. On top of that was stress from rehearsals when working for another company, in particular not being able to be with her baby when he needed her, she says.

“I thought, OK, I can either be a dancer, or I can be a company director, choreographer and mum, which was kind of enough. I think I just sort of had enough on my plate. And to facilitate dancers better, I had to commit to being on the other side.”

But then in 2019, she had a week with Ballet BC, doing class with them and watching rehearsals. “I realised I missed the adrenalin, the sheer absorption you have to have in the work to figure out how to execute it – not just make it but perform it.”

One day’s research proved to her that there was something there. She says while it “felt weird to be dancing for myself,” it also felt good. “Obviously, I was still dancing as I created material for people, but I always had them in my mind. It was always ‘how will I use this and give it to somebody’ rather than ‘what does this say’? I felt quite interesting to do that.”

Rosie describes having something to work on during lockdown as a lifeline, giving her a grounding and a purpose to work alone. “Actually, one great thing about lockdown was that I couldn’t go into any kind of studio. It was just being alone in my office, or later in a local Quaker hall, without an ounce of pressure. I think that was a gift.”

The trailer for Absolute Solo II[clear]

A virtual residency with C-DaRE at the University of Coventry added some structure. “I had to get things in order to give me at least four hours a day, reading, writing, watching.” Her office is full of dance books. I suspect she’s far from alone when she says that she had either read them and don’t remember them, or had not read them but really should have. “It was like encountering my own archive, all the books that I’d loved and that had meant something to me. Then I found all my diaries and notes. Sometimes it would be choreography, sometimes it would be sort of ‘woe is me, I hate dancing’,” she says laughing. “It was really funny reading it all. I just never looked back at my life and my work and all my ideas.”

Out of that came her new solo, Adult Female Dancer, which she describes as “sort of a play on the definition of woman.” She says that it was almost like an autobiography at one point, although it then became more poetic as she distilled it. It includes small pieces of text written and spoken by herself and interspersed with music that really means something to her or to a time.

Rosie Kay's Adult Female DancerPhoto Brian Slater
Rosie Kay’s Adult Female Dancer
Photo Brian Slater

To create the choreography, Rosie was able to use that local Quaker hall. “It was mid-May, I was doing three mornings a week, hard floor, all the windows open, freezing cold. But it was an amazing space.” When Quakers meet to pray, they first gather in silence to quieten minds and seek a sense of connection, she explains, adding that she too had a sense of waiting with no pressure to be inspired.

“It has stories about where I was born and why I dance. The two key points in the story are about why I gave up dancing. What seems to come out of nowhere is that there’s some kind of trauma, but I don’t go into it in detail. I dance it. There’s a dance that’s clearly about childbirth but which takes that into quite a strange direction. There’s a section about women’s bodies and women’s bodies being looked at, and being different; a sense of how women have to hold all this stuff about babies and motherhood, and all the sexualised ideas of womanhood. I think there’s something about how long it takes women to own their bodies, even as a dancer. And then it goes back to why dancing is still special and so magical. It ends on quite a high: a big dance to Patti Smith singing ‘Gloria’. So, it ends like, still going, still got it,” she says laughing again.

Rosie Kay in Artemis ClownPhoto Brian Slater
Rosie Kay in Artemis Clown
Photo Brian Slater

The title of the evening, Absolute Solo II, is a nod to Rosie’s first ever solo show, Absolute Solo, which she performed at the 1999 Edinburgh Festival. From that first programme, this new evening will include an archive film screening of the award-winning Patisserie, one of the first pieces she made as a professional and that uses text from interviews with Polish women, conducted when she was working with Polish Dance Theatre.

“It says something about me as a young woman in my 20s, struggling between the West and post-communist Poland and trying to find my way in it. There was something really exciting about Poland in the ’90s. Polish dance and theatre had a theatricality that was really missing in Western Europe at that time.”

Completing Absolute Solo II is Rosie’s first public performance of Artemis Clown, commissioned by Eliot Smith Dance Company in 2018 and originally performed by Gemma Paganelli.

“It took me quite a long time to realise this isn’t a solo about me. This is a solo made for Gemma, about performing and her hidden depths and complexities. Once I realised that, I could really play with it. But it is such a joy to dance. It’s really lovely to dance, and set to Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte, so it’s really beautiful.”

Looking to later in the year, following Absolute Solo II, Rosie’s next production is a full-length adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, which reunites Rosie Kay Dance Company regular collaborators including Birmingham composer Annie Mahtani, dramaturg Ben Payne, designer and film-maker Louis Price, and lighting Designer Mike Gunning and with a team of artistic advisors that include choreographers Aakash Odedra and Sonia Sabri, actor Dylan Duffus, headteacher Azita Zohhadi and regular RKDC performer Shanelle Clemenson. Due to premiere at the Birmingham Hippodrome on September 8, 2021, rehearsals are already well underway.

Rosie Kay Dance Company rehearse her forthcoming Romeo and Juliet, set to premiere in SeptemberPhoto Priya Appleby
Rosie Kay Dance Company rehearse her forthcoming Romeo and Juliet,
set to premiere in September
Photo Priya Appleby

Featuring a new scenario and some new roles, it is a very much a ‘Brum’ Romeo and Juliet, Rosie says. “It’s about young people, gang identity, elements of knife crime, and about love and equality between the sexes. It’s a very diverse cast. A lot of the cast members talk about how they can identify with characters and I’ve really collaborated with them to create the show from their perspectives.” Danced to the Berlioz score and Mahtani’s original composition, she promises a lot of duet work, which given the many present restrictions means, “I’m having to try a whole new set of tricks to make it work.”

Gazing ahead, Rosie believes that, following the pandemic, there will be a renewed appreciation for live theatre and music. She’s both relieved and delighted that audiences do seem keen to return. But last words to Absolute Solo II: “It felt like the right moment. I’m very pleased with it. It’s done very well, with interest from other theatres. And it’s so much fun to be performing again.”

Absolute Solo II premieres at the Birmingham REP on May 19, 2021. Visit birmingham-rep.co.uk for details and tickets. Further dates and venues will be detailed on rosiekay.co.uk when confirmed.

Rosie Kay’s Romeo and Juliet premieres at the Birmingham Hippodrome on September 8, 2021. For details and tickets, visit birminghamhippodrome.com.