Words by Charlotte Heap / Pics by Brian Slater – courtesy of Rosie Kay Dance Company
It is eighteen months since I reviewed the world premiere of Rosie Kay’s MK ULTRA: we were ‘steeped in alternative facts’ then – and now? Some might say we are stewing in a surreal, post-fact society.
Kay, as artistic director, has spent time reshaping the narrative of this psychedelic trip: stripping out surplus conspiracies and focusing on her favourite: the seemingly far-fetched notion that the CIA’s brainwashing programme, for which the show is named, did not stop in the 1960s but continued covertly to create malfunctioning pop star puppets like Britney Spears and Justin Bieber.
Shining a searchlight on society’s obsession with symbolism, hypersexuality and the Illuminati, the show is starkly staged with a high gloss floor reflecting kaleidoscopic projections and the sinuous synchronicity of the dancers. An unsettling, blinking all-seeing eye watches over the audience as we are spun through the story of a star being conditioned, and battling against, a government programme of mind control. Kay’s combination of daring dance, slick visuals and pulsing beats pull us down the rabbit hole with her.
Rosie Kay Dance Company (RKCD) choreography is challenging for both dancer and audience. Familiar moves, such as Michael Jackson’s iconic crotch grab and the ubiquitous twerking of modern music videos, are distorted and developed. The dancers embody the torturous puppet-making process: from the frenetic and, at times, frantic to the sometimes grotesquely sexual, we are forced to confront the conspiracy head on.
The seven dancers, clad in butterfly colours and conspiracy symbols, achieve stunning synergy at times. The solos, almost MTV moments, are intimate and unsettling insights into a visceral struggle for free will. This is clever choreography: it is as hypnotising as it is uncomfortable to watch. Intercut with images of a fragile Britney Spears, it feels voyeuristic to the viewer. Here is the rise and demise of the pop star: like a car crash, it is impossible to look away.
The reworking of the original show has focused the narrative on an individual. Kay felt that as a society, we are now au fait with even far-fetched conspiracy theories, and this enabled her to explore more deeply the supposed collaboration between Walt Disney and the CIA. Symbols are sewn in to the fabric of the show (and costumes): subtlety is not the approach but it needn’t be. The show is stunning to watch but the conspiracy (to me, a cynic) is laughable. The original show cleverly intercut snippets of young Brummies discussing the Illuminati which acted as startling reminder of the prevalence, and passivity, of believers. This show is slicker, with a more defined story: split into the traditional acts of a play, with a documentary-style narrator, it seems to have lost some of its direct challenge to the audience.
MK ULTRA is the final, political episode in an RKCD trilogy – previous installments 5 Soldiers and There is Hope (covering war and religion respectively) demonstrate Kay’s commitment to creating dance that covers unusual but important ground. Societal shifts in the last 18 months (President Trump now makes an unwelcome appearance in the show’s visuals) provide a more sinister backdrop for the story. As a standalone show, it is impactful and impressive – a dark twisted fantasy.
Having seen the original iteration, however, I’m left lamenting the removal of some of the societal context which challenged the viewer to consider their own role in a post-truth world. The individual narrative gives the viewer the opportunity to distance themselves from the cautionary tale: we may be brainwashed, but we’ll never be pop stars. So why does it matter?
MK ULTRA (official trailer) – Rosie Kay Dance Company
Rosie Kay Dance Company are currently touring MK ULTRA across the UK, until their finale show at the LEAP Festival in Liverpool on 10th November. For full tour details, visit www.mkultra.dance/tour-info
For more on MK Ultra, visit www.mkultra.dance
For more on Rosie Kay Dance Company, visit www.rosiekay.co.uk
For more from The Patrick Centre and the wider Hippodrome programme, visit www.birminghamhippodrome.com
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