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Born to dance: Choreographer Rosie Kay reveals why she is returning to the stage at 44

At 44, Rosie Kay is preparing to return to the stage
At 44, Rosie Kay is preparing to return to the stage

Five years ago, Rosie Kay decided it was time to bring her successful contemporary dance career to an end.

She had already overcome the odds to return from an injury which surgeons called “a career-ender”, and trained to performance level again to dance at the Royal Albert Hall shortly after the birth of her son.

But, at 39, the Edinburgh-born dancer decided enough was enough and dedicated herself to the Rosie Kay Dance Company, which is behind shows such as the award-winning 5 Soldiers.

“I had a baby in 2014 and worked hard to get back,” explained Rosie. “I did one show at the Royal Albert Hall, in front of 10,000 people, and although it went really well, there was something about the stress – not just of performing, but of the rehearsals, of having a new baby, and though it sounds awful, of realising my body wasn’t what it used to be – I felt I was done with it.

“It was a very strong and final feeling. It was quite sad because I’d never doubted putting myself on stage, but I didn’t want to go through it any more and decided it was time to be on the other side of the stage.”

Then, last year, Rosie felt an “itch inside” to perform again. “I realised I missed it and I’d also come to terms with being a different dancer. I know I won’t be that 20-year-old who can do all those things, but I felt I might have something else to say. It’s not about trying to be who I used to be.

“I had a couple of days in the studio last summer where I wasn’t thinking about another dancer or a big show, and I found it quite profound. With touring and having a big company and juggling family life, I hadn’t thought about what I had to say for myself. I’m sure many people can relate – it gets to a point where you haven’t considered yourself, who you are or what your life has been. And that’s how it started.”

© Ian Wallman
Rosie Kay in rehearsals for comeback show

Rosie is currently working on a new show, Absolute Solo II, which comes 21 years after her first solo show at the Edinburgh Fringe. It will premiere in Birmingham, where she has lived for 17 years, later in the year and will be streamed online, with a tour to follow.

The new solo dance will have autobiographical elements, forcing Rosie to look back on parts of her life she hadn’t confronted since they happened. “It’s a celebration of why I dance and why dancing is so brilliant, and it will almost be like a rave by the end,” she said.

“But some of it will have real sadness. I was obsessed with 1920s German female cabaret dancers and I lived in Berlin 20 years ago, but I had a terrible time. At one point I ended up homeless and penniless, asking what I was doing with my life.

“I went down the wrong track with the wrong person and gave up everything I really loved. You think that sort of thing won’t happen to you, but people can have a lot of control over you and it took a long time to recover from.

“I pulled myself together, went to Birmingham, and never looked back. You separate yourself from your work, but now that I’m using my story for my work, I was shocked at this schism in my life. I sat down with my husband that night over dinner and said I have to tell you about this part of my life, as it’s important. I’d blocked it. It was definitely there but I hadn’t looked at it with open eyes.

“There was so much going on at the start of lockdown, so many traumas, and it was interesting to uncover things about myself, and then build and move on.”

While much of the show – and Rosie’s intense fitness regime – has taken place under lockdown, a surprise return to the stage happened just before the pandemic

Rosie was taking 5 Soldiers to America in February to play some prestigious venues. As the team left from Birmingham Airport, they were told one of the dancers had been stopped from getting on his flight in London due to visa issues.

“It was unacceptable to do these big shows with four cast members – it was called 5 Soldiers,” Rosie recalled. “I knew a couple of the big technical pieces, like the drill, which is four minutes long, but I’d never danced it.

“The whole company sat on the plane and worked it all out. We had one night’s sleep, a rehearsal and then the show began. The first night was a whirlwind, but by the second night I was beginning to enjoy my little moments. It was exhilarating and I did the shows for two weeks.

“I was dancing with people at least 20 years younger than me – they do two-hour warm-ups, whereas I needed four or five hours to be ready. I would never have put myself into it unless I had to, but it was an incredible experience.”

It was in 2006, while she was laid up after having three surgeries on her left knee – the injury she was told could end her career – that Rosie began to think of the parallels between soldiers and dancers, which led to her training with a battalion and writing the critically-acclaimed dance based on the life of a squaddie.

© Reg Wilson/Shutterstock
Margot Fonteyn, below, danced into<br />her 50s

An off-shoot of that, 10 Soldiers, premiered in Birmingham last year and a version will be shown online as part of the Army@TheFringe shows at the virtual Edinburgh Fringe next month.

With a reimagined and contemporary Romeo And Juliet planned for next year and another project lined up for 2022, Rosie’s choreography for her company remains the focus, but she now hopes to take time out from those big productions every couple of years for solo shows.

Now 44, there aren’t many dancers of Rosie’s age making a comeback.

“It is a young person’s game and it does have a body aesthetic, no matter how much you fight against it,” she admitted.

“It is unusual at my age, but there are older dancers around. There is a woman at the Royal Ballet in her 50s, she’s very unusual to be a prima ballerina. And there used to be more older dancers, like Margot Fonteyn, who danced right up to her 50s, and Martha Graham, who danced until she died.”

Rosie describes her choreography on the film version of Sunshine On Leith as a great experience, while her work on the Commonwealth Games handover ceremony between Australia and Birmingham in 2018, in which 700 amateur dancers performed a six-minute single shot dance, was the most nail-biting thing she’s done.

One person who won’t be so impressed by Rosie’s return to the stage is her son, six-year-old Gabriel. “

As I’m lucky enough to run my own company, he came with me everywhere for the first three years,” she smiled. “His nursery and school teachers have said he refuses to join in with any dancing they do in class. He won’t let me sing or dance – he’s really against it.

“My husband is an artist as well, so Gabriel’s grown up in theatres, and I think he’s rebelling against it.

“There will be a moment, I’m sure, when he says he’s proud of it all, but for now he tells me to stop dancing!”

Thankfully, that’s unlikely to happen any time soon.