BREVIEW: Fantasia – Rosie Kay Dance Company @ The Patrick Studio 25.09.19

Words by Charlotte Heap / Pics courtesy of Rosie Kay Dance Company

What is it that makes dance beautiful to watch? The choreography, the costumes, the lighting, the music?

Rosie Kay’s Dance Company’s new show, Fantasia, which premiered at Birmingham Hippodrome’s Patrick Studio on 25th September, promised to use art and science to ‘make a work of pure joy.’

Rosie Kay Dance Company is a West Midlands based organisation headed by the eponymous Rosie Kay, a Birmingham Hippodrome Associate, and established in 2004. The company has a number of acclaimed productions in its repertoire, including MK Ultra, (which I’ve reviewed during its original run in 2017 and after its revamp in 2018), The Wild Party, Supernova and 5 Soldiers – the latter of which was performed in a real barracks. More recently, Kay was a Commonwealth Games Handover Ceremony choreographer.

Rosie Kay has developed a reputation for developing shows which challenge the audience on complex issues, without compromising on the dance experience. In researching for her new piece, Fantasia, Kay worked with neuroscientists at Denmark’s Center for Music in the Brain to explore how dance can trigger pleasure and fulfilment in the cerebrum. Kay fine-tuned her choreography for Fantasia, using this knowledge, in an attempt maximise the audience experience.

Fantasia is a performance in three parts: three female dancers explore emotions, from love to loss, through linked group and solo dances representing the sun, the moon and the earth. Composer Annie Mahtani and Kay worked with familiar pieces including Purcell, Beethoven and Bach for the show, delivering a clever contrast between classical music and modern choreography.

Dancers Shanelle Clemenson, Harriet Ellis, and Carina Howard were, at times, breath-taking: performing barefoot ballet with power, athleticism and raw emotion. The composition coupled with the intimacy of The Patrick Studio meant we could hear the dancers breathe emotional exhalations, a deliberate choice by Mahtani and Kay which added to the immersive feel of Fantasia.

The most joyful moments were enhanced by clever staging; Louis Price and Sasha Kier brought the tutu back, but exaggerated the form and added tribal prints. Under the bright light of the ‘sun’, the pirouetting dancers resembled spinning parasols on a windswept beach.

Fully-fringed silver catsuits swished and shone hypnotically in the ‘moonlight’, although a nitpicker may say that the costume change here was a few seconds too long – an empty, unlit stage does not spark joy. It was for the merest of moments, however, and Mike Gunning (Lighting Director) otherwise created dreamy reflections and shadows on the studio stage, replicating and twisting the dancers’ moves like a hall of mirrors.

The dancers weaved through a range of feelings for the audience; modern moves, frantic and frenetic, confronted us and induced discomfort as well as delight. Irreverence in dance may not please the purist – but some endearing and even cheeky moments (literally, as each dancer playfully lifts their dress to flash their bottom during the final act) brought levity and laughter from this opening night audience. Occasionally, a size disparity between the dancers caused synchronicity to slip and this dampened the fantasy – but only slightly.

Fantasia sets out to be ‘an exquisite performance of pleasure, beauty and finesse’, subverting conventional ballet to reach the audience scientifically as well aesthetically. Kay has used her signature innovation to bring ballet into the 21st century’; Fantasia isn’t pure joy but more a reminder of the scope of human emotion, and that in itself is joyful to watch.

Fantasia – Rosie Kay Dance Company

Rosie Kay Dance Company is currently touring Fantasia across the UK, running until 21st November. For more on Fantasia, visit

For more from the Rosie Kay Dance Company, including further event listings and online ticket sales, visit

For more on the Birmingham Hippodrome and The Patrick Studio, including venue details and further event listings, visit


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BREVIEW: MK ULTRA @ The Patrick Centre 21.09.18

MK ULTRA - Rosie Kay Dance Company / By Brian Slater

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.

MK ULTRA - Rosie Kay Dance Company / By Brian Slater

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.

MK ULTRA - Rosie Kay Dance Company / By Brian SlaterThe 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 

For more on MK Ultra, visit 

For more on Rosie Kay Dance Company, visit 

For more from The Patrick Centre and the wider Hippodrome programme, visit


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BREVIEW: 5 Soldiers – The Body is the Frontline @ 48 Signal Squadron Army Reserve Centre 14.10.17

5 Soldiers - The Body is the Frontline / Rosie Kay Dance Company - production photo by Tim Cross

Words by Lucy Mounfield / Production pics by Tim Cross

“You’re dead!”– this eerie and flinchingly realistic command comes from the drill sergeant (Reece Causton) during the opening section of Rosie Kay Dance Company’s 5 Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline.

For a minute or two I found these alienating shouts disturbing and disorientating – frequently looking round the room for an enemy attack. What am I watching, a troop of soldiers on drill manoeuvres or five dancers? Combining the haunting atmosphere of the Army Reserve Centre in Sparkbrook with Kay’s athletic choreography, 5 Soldiers fuses the macho world of the army with contemporary dance and blurs the boundaries between reality and spectacle.

5 Soldiers - The Body is the Frontline / Rosie Kay Dance Company - production photo by Tim CrossIn most theatrical dance productions, the themes of conflict and war have been portrayed as a series of synchronized movements mapped out as a struggle between good and evil. Traditional three-act ballets such as Kenneth Macmillan’s Romeo and Juliet utilise formation set pieces to depict fencing and gang violence, for example, and these tend to follow the clinical pattern of formal choreographic tropes. Traditionally, dance had no place for realism; choreography became a means to tell a story. 5 Soldiers does the opposite, mixing army training techniques with the robotic bold lines of Kay’s choreography to create an immersive experience.

What sets 5 Soldiers apart from traditional productions is the fact that there is no discernible enemy. The dancers react and respond to the invisible. Here, this alienating and intimate setup allows Kay to explore the inner workings of the soldier free from narrative constraints. Using the simple tripartite structure following three basic elements of an army career enables the performance to focus on the brutal physicality of being a soldier, an existence that is unforgiving of gender roles.

5 Soldiers - The Body is the Frontline / Rosie Kay Dance Company - production photo by Tim CrossThe second section of the production develops the camaraderie and relationships between soldiers. In training and combat a soldier is a soldier regardless of gender, but during down time this becomes problematic. This is shown in an uncomfortable sequence wherein the only female officer (Harriet Ellis) strips down to her underwear whilst dancing to Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’. She slowly takes away the armour and makeup that dehumanizes her, her camo gear strewn to one side.

Here, she and her male colleagues wrestle with their duty and their desires. What plays out during the song is not so different to the military drills in the first section – high leg kicks and sharp staccato lines – but without the regalia and insignia of the armed forces. Stripped bare, performing the splits in front of her male peers she becomes sexualised and offers her gender more freely than before. In another way, this is another layer of armour to protect herself from the physical differences between her and the others.

This second part also makes clear the awkward tension between soldiers’ public and private selves. The machismo gestures in this scene are clearly driven by their vulnerability. They pursue the female soldier until they realise their actions are inappropriate. 5 Soldiers - The Body is the Frontline / Rosie Kay Dance Company - production photo by Tim CrossHowever, from here they turn to her as a mother figure, highlighting their reliance upon gender stereotypes and the emotional outlet that they lack.

The men remorsefully hold Ellis aloft on their shoulders as if she is sitting upon a throne. They march alongside her whilst Causton moves his hands as if to crown her. Fantasy is a key aspect of 5 Soldiers; everyone has projected their fantasy of protection, Britain-as-mother and their duty to her, onto the female soldier. The men want to be everything at once; action man, hero, lover, protector and father but this comes at a cost.

The third and last section of the piece shows one of the soldiers being shot (Duncan Anderson), as a result of which he undergoes a double amputation below the knee. The other dancers bind his legs, and a brief sequence shows him re-learning how to move in his altered body, at first supported by his comrades and then alone. 5 Soldiers - The Body is the Frontline / Rosie Kay Dance Company - production photo by Tim CrossFor me this exemplifies where 5 Soldiers is at its best, but also raises questions. One connects with the subjective experience of amputation, of trauma, almost of being born again into a strange new body. The hardships and complexities of existing as a woman in a man’s world are vividly and intelligently rendered.

But this focus also results in the erasure of the outside world. Our soldiers are on patrol in a country that is strangely empty, full of danger but devoid of subjectivity – the mere backdrop of their personal stories. It is confusing that the marketing material makes the claim that 5 Soldiers ‘offers no moral judgment on war’.

I think this obscures the real point that 5 Soldiers isn’t about war as such, it’s about the human and bodily element of combat. But then this tour is supported by the British Army; tonight’s performance was hosted in an Army reserve base. Why? Clearly for the Army this is a public relations exercise, to ‘engage’ people and break down barriers as was made clear in the post-performance discussion. But 5 Soldiers is not reducible to that; it stands on its own as a nuanced depiction of military life.

5 Soldiers – The Body is the Frontline / Rosie Kay Dance Company

For more on 5 Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline, visit

For more on Rosie Kay Dance Company, visit

For further details on the Army Reserve Centre (Golden Hillock Road, Sparkbrook, B11 2QG), visit

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