Words by Charlotte Heap / Production pics by Brian Slater
THIS IS FAKE THEATRE. The commencing proclamation of Rosie Kay Dance Company’s MK ULTRA raised a snigger from the REP audience, steeped as we are in “alternative facts”. Named after Rosie Kay’s favourite conspiracy theory, MK ULTRA explores the occult in pop culture: shining a searchlight on society’s obsession with symbolism, hyper-sexuality and the Illuminati.
The show doesn’t shy away from its droll departure, spiraling into a psychedelic trip through conspiracy history; kaleidoscopic projections, bursting onto a stark triangle set, suck you into a twisted tale of truth and fake news. In preparation for this production, Kay collaborated with BBC filmmaker Adam Curtis to explore the sinister story of mind control and the far-fetched, far reaches of online conspiracies. Cleverly, Curtis intercuts snippets of young Brummies discussing the Illuminati: particularly poignant for the audience and a startling reminder of the prevalence, and passivity, of believers.
Rosie Kay encountered this youthful fascination with free will during dance workshops and “fell down the rabbit hole” during the three years of research which led to MK ULTRA’s home town premiere. Conspiracy buffs will already know that MK ULTRA was the code name for a CIA brainwashing programme in the 1950s and 1960s, but the uninitiated may be less familiar with the theory that Disney and the CIA have continued the experiments – collaborating to control favourite pop stars, who occasionally break free and act out. Footage of a mentally fragile Britney Spears viewed through the famous Illuminati pyramid feels uncomfortably voyeuristic. But what is proof? Are we controlled by a shadowy elite? Kay’s combination of daring dance, slick visuals and pulsing beats pull us down the rabbit hole with her.
The choreography in MK ULTRA is rightly ambitious and complex; from fluid innocence to, at times, the grotesquely sexual, we are forced to confront the conspiracy head on. The dancers frequently physically entice the audience, exhorting us to question what we think we know. Am I in control of myself?
Sometimes struggling with the frenetic synchronisation, the seven dancers still stun throughout the production; they become a beautiful seething mass in gravity-defying displays which draw loud gasps. The solos, almost MTV moments, are intimate and ultimately unsettling insights into a visceral struggle for free will. The dancers are the perfect puppets in this – at times I can almost see the strings, whilst Rosie Kay, as puppet master, is masterful.
Symbols, both subtle and sledgehammer, are sewn into the fabric of the show; pop culture references abound, from Michael Jackson to Mickey Mouse. Costumier Gary Card (whose celebrity clients include possible CIA puppet Lady Gaga) festooned the dancers with the iconography of the occult. Their decorated limbs reminded this fashion victim of the garish prints of Versace – himself a victim of mobster murder conspiracy theories. Deconstructed and frantic trap beats, interspersed with comfortably familiar classic samples, further compliment MK ULTRA’s crisp choreography and hypnotic visuals – adding to the discordant intensity of the production.
MK ULTRA is the final, political episode in a triptych from Rosie Kay Dance Company; 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. MK ULTRA’s programme asks the audience to consider how they experience the show, where they feel it in their bodies – something this cynic scoffed at. But this prolonged peek into conspiracy culture is stimulating and, occasionally, disorientating. My heart raced, brain strained, fists clenched, palms prickled.
But whilst the interval provided a welcome pause to absorb, the surprisingly saccharine ending to MK ULTRA comes almost too soon; like waking from a fever dream, it leaves you questioning and confused, but exhilarated.
Just as the dance company’s founder and director intended, MK ULTRA challenges the conspiratorial belief that, as individuals, we are powerless: “It’s like we can’t control anything,” explains Rosie Kay – in her previous interview with Helen Knott for Birmingham Review. “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.”
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