Rarely has a performance felt so apt, or revealed so much about the world in which it is being created and performed, than Rosie Kay Dance Company’s new MK Ultra. Indeed, Rosie must have felt a certain sense of satisfaction when the work she had been researching for years – conspiracy theories about lies and manipulation within the media – recently became headlines as ‘Fake News’ and ‘Alternative Facts.’
MK Ultra explores the conspiracy theory that a mysterious, powerful group called the Illuminati (a combination of CIA directors, psychologists and Walt Disney) have brainwashed certain pop stars, turning them into puppets which spread messages to alter the public consciousness – a system called MK Ultra. Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Lindsay Lohan, Kanye West and, most famously, Britney Spears have all been named as victims of MK Ultra brainwashing.
Rosie Kay’s unique, multi-layered choreography subverts iconic dance moves from popular music videos, and mixes street styles of trap and footwork with her strong contemporary aesthetic. Many of these movements sexualise the female dancers. However, rather than appearing provocative, the choreography serves to emphasise their vulnerability. If these pop stars are indeed controlled by the all-powerful Illuminati, what message is twerking supposed to convey?
The frantic energy and relentless pace of Kay’s choreography drives the dancers onward, without a chance to pause or look back, reflecting the unforgiving nature of the supposed MK Ultra programme as it dictates the actions of our Hollywood icons.
Kay’s choreography succeeds in bringing this abstract theory to life, and gives the performers a fascinating concept to explore. The dancers visibly shift being between controlled or programmed, before waking up to confront the reality of their situation. They switch from mechanical, non-stop motion, accompanied by fixed smiles and sexual feline movement, to more halting, pained gestures and expressions.
We experience the cyclical nature of MK Ultra programming. As the pop-star-like character’s (the astonishing Shelley Eva Haden) pace slows, and she seems to come bewildered by her situation, she is physically re-programmed by other dancers; they manipulate her body, placing her feet one by one with rigid deliberation, repeating the sequence until the pop star moves of her own volition.
The stage is dominated by projections lit in a triangular frame (yet another symbol of Illumination elitism). The projections provide useful documentary information about the background of the theory, and create a creepy, flickering world which simulates the supposed brainwashing effect. The eye darts between projections and dance, creating a sense of information overload. Popular images from music videos – thrones, chequered floors, butterflies, broken glass, and the eye of Horus – are peppered throughout both projections and choreography, thus taking on a new and sinister significance.
Rosie Kay Dance Company’s MK Ultra is a fascinating, thought-provoking experience, exposing an underground world of conspiracy. The young, talented company impress with their boundless energy and athleticism, all whilst intelligently communicating this dark and complex theory. MK Ultra particularly speaks to young audiences who have woken up to the fact that the media controls all aspects of modern life. Kay’s latest creation is absolutely crucial to these current, troubled times, encouraging us to develop a new tradition of questioning authority and subverting the norm. An incredible, eye-opening production which lingers on the mind.
MK Ultra is at Birmingham Rep until Saturday 18 March, and then on a national tour. Details are available here.