BREVIEW: MK ULTRA @ REP 17.03.17 / Brian Slater

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.

BREVIEW: MK ULTRA @ REP 17.03.17 / Brian SlaterRosie 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 BREVIEW: MK ULTRA @ REP 17.03.17 / Brian Slaterultimately 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. BREVIEW: MK ULTRA @ REP 17.03.17 / Brian SlaterBut 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

For more on Rosie Kay Dance Company, visit

For more from REP, including a full event programme and online ticket sales, visit


INTERVIEW: Rosie Kay / Brian Slater

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Words by Helen Knott / Profile pic by Tim Cross, production shots by Brian J Slater 

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.INTERVIEW: Rosie Kay / Tim Cross

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!”

INTERVIEW: Rosie Kay / Brian SlaterThe 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.”

INTERVIEW: Rosie Kay / Brian SlaterRosie 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

For more on Rosie Kay Dance Company, visit

For more from REP, including a full event programme and online ticket sales, visit

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