When I catch up with Rosie Kay – artistic director and choreographer of Birmingham-based Rosie Kay Dance Company (RKDC) – it’s January and she is in the middle of running through her new show MK ULTRA.
Patiently explaining the rehearsal patterns of a professional dance company to me, “We’re working really intensely at the moment, then we will take most of February off and come back together for two more weeks in the studio before we go into the theatre. This works well, because I like having some breathing space to really consider what it is I’m making and if it works or not. I have the chance to work with my composer and film editor on the structure. It also helps prevent any injuries to the dancers.”
Rosie Kay started choreographing MK ULTRA before Christmas, but the research and development stages began almost three years ago. “I started exploring, ‘can I make a political work?’ I was pregnant at the time, so I couldn’t do all my usual out-there research – in the past I’ve joined an army infantry or visited India and China – but for MK ULTRA I was much more home-bound.” Spurred on by the young people she met during a series of dance workshops who were fascinated by the shadowy ‘Illuminati’, Kay found herself “going down a rabbit hole” of online conspiracy theories.
Kay’s new show is named after one of her favourite conspiracy theories; MK ULTRA is the code word for a CIA brainwashing programme carried out in the 1950s and 1960s. The conspiracy goes that this programme has never stopped and is now issued to control Disney child stars, including Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan. “They’re actually under this brainwashing, so they’re puppets who are controlled. Now and again their programming breaks down and that’s why they have these kind of flip outs.” Kay is gleeful. “It’s pretty mad isn’t it? I love it!”
The resulting pop culture-inspired show features seven dancers who perform in big group numbers, duets and each have their own solos. “We get to know them individually,” explains Rosie Kay. “It’s almost like they have their own music videos, though it’s not as linear and straight-forward as that.” The show’s costume designer Gary Card seems to be the perfect choice for establishing an authentic version of this world, because he’s living it. Card’s clients include Stella McCartney, Topshop and Lady Gaga.
Another MK ULTRA collaborator points to its unsettling underbelly. BBC filmmaker Adam Curtis is best known for his documentaries Bitter Lake and HyperNormalisation, and for his series The Power of Nightmares, which challenges the conspiracy theories behind the reporting of Islamist terrorism. “Adam is creating some documentary contextualisations that help explain the world that MK ULTRA comes from,” tells Kay, “particularly in the first half. I want the show to feel glossy and to be entertaining and fun, but underneath it’s actually really disturbing. You’ve realised that you’re subjected to this imagery and these messages all the time, but maybe we’re so used to it we’ve stopped saying, ‘hang on, what is this saying and what is it doing to us?’”
Indeed for Kay the popularity of conspiracy theories, particularly with young people, points to wider issues. “Ultimately the thing that worries me about conspiracy theories is that there’s passivity to it. It’s like we can’t control anything, it’s all controlled by this shadowy elite and there’s nothing that we can do. And of course, now more than ever, it isn’t. We’re the people, we have the power, we can change how the world is. I feel strongly that all my work has this sense that we invent the world, we invent reality. We don’t have to have it the way that it is if we want to change it.”
Rosie Kay positions MK ULTRA as the final piece in a RKDC trilogy, connected to previous shows 5 SOLDIERS and There is Hope by Kay’s commitment to subjects that dance “doesn’t normally talk about”. 5 SOLDIERS is about war: “I got into that by exploring the body in war. In any war, at any time, the place of war is the individual’s body.” There is Hope is about religion: “Evoking spirituality or the religious state through the body.”
And MK ULTRA? “This one started off politically and I think it’s getting back there, but through the spectrum of the pop world and looking at how bodies are used.” In all three works Kay explores some of life’s biggest questions, coloured by a dancer’s pre-occupation with the physicality of the human body.
After the UK tour of MK ULTRA the rest of 2017 is shaping up to be busy for Rosie Kay Dance Company, with plans almost confirmed for a revival tour of 5 SOLDIERS from late summer. Until then, it’s all about entering the “strange world” of MK ULTRA. And for all our chatting about conspiracy theories and politics, Rosie Kay is keen to underline the talent of her dancers. “Above all, MK ULTRA is just so much amazing dancing by amazing dancers. It’s really exhilarating.”
MK ULTRA (official trailer) – Rosie Kay Dance Company
MK ULTRA receives its world premiere performances at Birmingham Repertory Theatre on 17th & 18th March and will tour to a further 10 venues across the UK until 18 May 2017. For direct event info from REP, including venue details and online tickets sales, click here.
For more on MK Ultra, visit www.mkultra.dance
For more on Rosie Kay Dance Company, visit www.rosiekay.co.uk
For more from REP, including a full event programme and online ticket sales, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk