IF MANY a choreographer feels as if they have to battle – for funding, for tour dates, for audiences – very few, if any, have gone the length of taking up arms because of their work. Rosie Kay, however, did just that. It took her nearly two years to negotiate an attachment to The 4th Battalion the Rifles before, in November 2008, she joined them for two weeks of exercises on Dartmoor and on manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain.

During that time she pushed herself beyond previous limits of stamina and strength, squaring up to the exacting physical challenges of marching, fully helmeted and in body armour with a 70lb (32kg) rucksack on her back. This onslaught was only a starting point in her tour of creative duty. Thoughts and emotions were also being exercised as she tried to fathom the mindset that shifted her from a civilian working in the arts to an armed trooper in a unit drilled to attack an opposing force – in this case, a battalion from the Coldstream Guards. Kay would subsequently delve further, and engage with the fall-out of combat, by spending time with staff and soldiers at the military rehabilitation centre, Headley Court, in Surrey.

The result of these immersive experiences, is 5 Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline which – after critically acclaimed showings – has its Scottish premiere at Glasgow’s Tramway before a tour that includes performances in operational barracks. Alongside these showings is another level of public engagement. Kay and her dancers will be working with communities, service personnel and their families, mixing young people and veterans on an outreach programme. The aim being that, in each location, a community group will perform their own "taster" version of Kay’s choreography. Add in the post-show Q&A discussions – with Kay, the cast and a local Commanding Officer keen to engage with audience responses – and what emerges is how the making of 5 Soldiers has gone deep with Kay. Not only as a creative artist, but as the mother of a toddler son.

Kay’s earlier choreographies are, in fact, witness to the serious research she takes into the studio. Double Points: K (2008) in collaboration with Emio Greco|PC saw her close-study Greco’s own theories and movements. Time spent absorbing the history, rituals and tribal lore behind artefacts in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford led on to Sluts of Possession (2013) – she was the first Leverhulme Artist in Residence to the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, University of Oxford at the time. If this all sounds very academic, don’t imagine that Kay choreographs her worthy facts at the expense of either artistry or emotional connections.

Her process, at every stage, is about honing the honesty within her subject matter. And when it came to 5 Soldiers, that honesty tracks back to 2007 when – laid up with a badly injured knee that had required surgery – she was immobilised in front of a television screen showing images of army casualties. Kay herself is both intense and articulate about the overlap that then set in. Her career in dance had relied on a body that was fit for purpose, a body that could respond – without thinking – to transitions between different kinds of movement, a body able to detect the brinkmanship of an off-balance tipping point, and in a split-second (or less), alter that trajectory to another direction. Dancers refer to this learning and retaining actions as “muscle memory”. While Kay’s knee was still, you might say, “hors de combat” her thoughts – prompted by that army footage – were spinning into overdrive. She saw vivid, meaningful linkages between the kind of rigorous self-discipline that dancers embrace in training and the kind of reiterated drills that become automatic reflexes for soldiers. It was when she started contemplating trauma – the ongoing effects of physical injury, but also how that alters your whole attitude to, for instance, taking risks – that Kay went into a “need to know more” mode.

“I think I also became increasingly aware of a certain disconnect that exists between the public and the army,” says Kay. “Even watching footage of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan doesn’t really bring it home to us. It kind of stays at arm’s length. We have remembrance ceremonies for the fallen of world wars but for the public at large, the legacy of going to war – the lasting injuries to minds and mental wellbeing, as well as bodies – is, I think, poorly understood and easily forgotten when there are no parades. And now that I have my own little boy, the horror of it gets to me more than ever.”

Kay in no way kidded herself that two weeks with an artillery regiment was going to answer all her concerns, but the diary she kept – and referred to extensively afterwards in the dance studio – was a raw, frank and exposing reminder of what it feels like to be out of your comfort zone and having to follow someone else’s command.

“At first, you think it’ll be about no ladies loos, no real privacy, that sort of thing,” and she laughs because that was the least of it. “It was scary and exhausting. Exhausting because on these exercises there’s no let up. You can’t decide to stop, have a tea-break – the other side is shooting at you. I can remember running across Dartmoor and as it was so boggy, I was falling over, getting up and falling over again while there was firing going on over my head.”

She hardly needs to consult her diary to remember the unnerving feeling of darkness closing in on an active battlefield, or the shared sleep deprivation that somehow put her on a more open footing with men who might otherwise have closed ranks against someone who seemed to be play-acting with their reality. She also reckons that her dancer’s training – which prioritises watching, learning and then doing the moves correctly – came to her aid when fitting in with the rules that regulate every aspect of a soldier’s life.

“You soon come to feel that getting it right is what matters,” says Kay wryly. “It’s what duty means.” That tenet saw her – somewhat to her own surprise – lining up for sessions of target practice, before joining her squad and undertaking to fight alongside them. “Women do go on front-line duty,” says Kay, “but so do young lads. And talking with them, in barracks, or with the injured men undergoing rehabilitation, was really important. I felt I needed to get under the skin of these soldiers, to feel what they feel. And when – after quite an intensive auditioning process – I finally brought together my company for 5 Soldiers, the dancers also spent time training with the military and talking with soldiers so as to understand them and make the performance richer."

When Kay explains this – and then confirms that this process continues to apply to new dancers who join the production – it says, loud and clear, that her choreography was never just about steps. She’ll add, at one point, that soldiers would often talk about films that got army life completely wrong. One reason, among many, why she has kept touching base with men and officers and performing the work for them and their families. Kay knows that the issues she put into her dance-making are the flesh-and-blood stuff of their lives.

Just as Gregory Burke channelled verbatim interviews with former soldiers into his Black Watch script for the National Theatre of Scotland in 2006, so Rosie Kay has brought the sweat and grit of serving men into her choreography: The Body is the Frontline is no idle subtitle to 5 Soldiers. As General Sir Nick Parker, KCB, CBE has, himself, observed, Kay’s “use of dance to help create a complex and nuanced picture of conflict is one of the most innovative and compelling initiatives that I have experienced in the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan. It demonstrates how art can be used as a powerful tool in the healing process, how it can touch the extended family of those who have been caught in the horror of battle and how it can send a universal message about the soldier. It is an extraordinary achievement which will make a difference to many people.”

Lt Col GJ Mackenzie of the 51st Infantry Brigade and Army Headquarters Scotland adds: "5 Soldiers is an exciting opportunity to get people to look at us and think about us in different ways. It’s a break from the more traditional approach of tattoos and military shows, so we hope it will help us reach new audiences, break down barriers and explore attitudes and emotions beyond the norm."

The Rosie Kay Dance Company presents 5 Soldiers:The Body is the Frontline at Tramway, Glasgow on Friday and Saturday, April 29 and 30