Rosie Kay on her new MK Ultra – exploring the world of conspiracy theory and the Illuminati

Rosie Kay Dance Company in <I>MK Ultra</I>.<br />© Brian Slater. (Click image for larger version)
Rosie Kay Dance Company in MK Ultra.
© Brian Slater. (Click image for larger version)


MK Ultra has its world premiere performances at Birmingham Repertory Theatre on 17 & 18 March and then tours to a further 10 venues across the UK until 18 May 2017. Full Details.

Explaining my new work, MK Ultra, to people has become a lot easier in recent weeks. Even six months ago, mentioning my work looking at conspiracy theory would have drawn a snort from many over the age of 25. But it is different now- ‘Fake News’ and ‘Alternative Facts’ have become the news and the fragile balance of trust between truth, the news, our leaders and the media has been fractured. The lid has been lifted, and widespread belief and knowledge of conspiracy theory is now being looked at seriously – something I’ve been advocating for several years as I researched and watched the gulf between the mainstream, the alternative and how young people were navigating their way in this confused world of distrust. Most of us have been in a state of stasis, but young people have known and felt the disintegration of belief in our leaders and the stories they tell us.



Rosie Kay in the studio.<br />© Tim Cross. (Click image for larger version)
Rosie Kay in the studio.
© Tim Cross. (Click image for larger version)
Researching conspiracy theory since 2012, I came across the theory of the ‘Illuminati’. For those who don’t know, they are a supposed shadowy elite who control the media through messages in pop music, entertainment with the intent on somehow ruling the world, spreading a ‘New World Order’ agenda of state control. Through my research I encountered a lot of conspiracy theory, I looked at false flag attacks, false news, alternative theories on almost every single mainstream news item, as well as theories on shadowy elites, occult sects, secret societies, modern witchcraft, assassinations and celebrity deaths.

I was influenced by my work at the School of Anthropology at the University of Oxford, understanding how one can study groups of people in modern society who exhibit certain traits of belonging; a modern tribe in effect, and what this means as a reflection of contemporary society. I was also reviving my 2010 work, 5 Soldiers and attending a lot of military seminars as part of the Changing Character of War Programme at Oxford, listening to Army Generals, public and economic policy makers and peacekeepers talk about the future of stability, and threats to security across the world. I was struck by how important communication and engagement was to everyone, but yet how out of date the methods were. I felt the ‘powers that be’ still very much wanted to set the agenda and tone of all aspects of the world we live in, but this was a 20th Century patriarchal belief and populations were becoming rebellious and distrustful of the messages fed to them.

MK Ultra trailer from Rosie Kay on Vimeo.

Through all my research, I look for certain qualities. Does it feel new? Does it excite me? Does it feel original? And key to all of this – how can this be expressed through dance? Where is the body in this? I need to feel, within the fabric of my own body, how I think this could be expressed in a new and physical way. This is a mysterious and intuitive process for me; my research, my imagination and my body have to align for me to feel that this is a suitable project for my work.  It was when I encountered the conspiracy theory relating to ‘the Illuminati’ that I knew I’d found the way in for my new work, MK Ultra.

The conspiracy theory

The conspiracy theory is that the people who created and developed the brainwashing technique of MK Ultra teamed up with CIA and Disney to create automaton pop stars. MK Ultra was a CIA brainwashing programme that was carried out across Western Universities in an attempt to use experimental psychology to programme potential spies, soldiers and assassins. While it is historically agreed that MK Ultra did in fact take place, and many people were unwilling volunteers, there is no evidence that MK Ultra has continued past the early 1970’s. The theory is that it did continue, with the MK Ultra doctors and the CIA directors teaming up with Walt Disney to attempt to brainwash singing and acting children, and turn them into programmed stars who would perform as puppets spreading messages to alter public consciousness.

Potential stars were brainwashed through MK Ultra torture techniques and programmed to be perfect performing pop stars. This was carried out through the Disney club and took several attempts before they struck gold with their first mainstream star, Britney Spears.

Shelley Eva Haden in MK Ultra.© Brian Slater. (Click image for larger version)
Shelley Eva Haden in MK Ultra.
© Brian Slater. (Click image for larger version)

But one of the downsides of the MK Ultra brainwashing, is that the programming starts to falter as the victim ages, with the individuals own personality fighting back and trying to break through their brainwashing. The stars would have some kind of episode, often with the media reporting planted stories of drink or drug addictions, before the star is put into some kind of ‘psychiatric unit’ where, the public would be told they were having rehabilitation, but in actual fact they were being re-programmed. The stars, now re-progammed by their ‘handlers’ then return to their grueling touring and performance schedules, often looking a little bit dazed, but mostly compliant until the next ‘episode’. This is supposed to have happened very famously to Britney, but also to Lady Gaga, Justin Beiber, Lindsay Lohan and most recently to Kayne West.

So far, so bizarre.

So I went out into the Midlands and I spoke with young people. I asked them about media representation and I waited for the magic words, ‘the Illuminati’ to come up. The classroom would erupt and discussion would become extremely animated. That is to say amongst a large proportion of the group – there were always a few young people who asked what was going on and were totally unaware. As I left one school, I heard a student whisper excitedly to a friend “I cannot believe that we were actually talking about this stuff in the classroom!”  I felt like I’d tapped into a secret belief system that the children sheltered from their parents and from adults, people who were unaware of the significance the children see in daily life.  I became really interested in how young people felt these conspiracy theories were affecting them – how did they feel about mainstream news stories? What did they believe in, what didn’t they believe in, what was real?

Rosie Kay Dance Company in MK Ultra.© Brian Slater. (Click image for larger version)
Rosie Kay Dance Company in MK Ultra.
© Brian Slater. (Click image for larger version)

While conspiracy theory can be seen as a joke – the preserve of the tin hat brigade, still obsessing about 9/11 and career suicide for academics, as I was told, I felt that this was a real phenomenon and one ripe for artistic exploration.

Hidden within pop music videos is a tick-list of Illuminati symbols – symbols that tell the viewer if this artist is a puppet of the Illuminati or not. These symbols include butterfly’s (linked to monarch programming, a term for a certain type of brainwashing), triangles (THE sign of the Illuminati and a symbol of the power of the elite over the masses) one eye and eye of Horus (links to Egyptology and the all seeing eye), birdcages (trapped), asylums (the brainwashing torture chambers), broken glass (symbolizing the shattered psyche), checkered floors (linked to freemasonry) and occult and satanic signs. If you don’t believe me, try watching Keisha’s Die Young video with this all in mind, and you’ll soon see it.

What was even more exciting was the medium through which these messages were transmitted; through dance routines, through the pop stars bodies and through the backing dancers who support them. This gave me a way to look at these dances, and these styles of dancing, including twerking, krumping and street styles, and manipulate and absorb it with a strong technical and contemporary aesthetic – this is difficult, challenging dance, which pushed the dancers vocabulary to the maximum and pushed the work out of the realm of pastiche and into the avant-garde.

The making of the work so far

Following period of research and development over the past 18 months, I began to work out that the key to this work would be dance vocabulary itself and the performance modes the dancers played with.

Following the auditioning and casting of the show in November 2016, in an unusual step, I decided to spend one week in the studio alone, improvising material for the group sections and a solo for each of the cast members. Company members Shelley Eva Haden and Oliver Russell then joined me, and we learnt how to work from video, how time consuming it could be and if the material worked on other’s bodies; it did and we were very excited.

In January this year the cast came together and the first week was spent learning a huge amount of raw material from video, together, alone and in small groups. On one day, I was confronted by the strange sight of seven dancers all learning solo material from computers, headphones plugged in, a virtual rehearsal in the studio. Following that I created group sections using the dancers in the studio.


By week 3, a structure was built, and after our first stagger-through run-through, we began to talk character and narrative with our dramaturg Tessa Walker. The dancers began to make choices – not set in stone, but as an experiment to see who their alter-ego personality on stage was, how they began the piece, and how they had transformed through the work. This was a key point – after literally being brainwashed into learning a large volume of steps, they began to find meaning in each of these movements, each section, solo and group dance helping them to tell their story to us as an audience. Seeing the dancers shift from automatons, to living, breathing performers was moving, and forms part of the piece as a whole – I ask them when are they in control, when is control from outside, when are they obeying unheard orders? When are they awake and aware? When are they helpless? This has added much depth and there is more to go in the final week and on stage. This show digs deep into the performers psyche – it asks questions of identity and the fabric of who we are, who controls us (consciously or subliminally) and how to we gain approval, success, acceptance on stage, through our dancing bodies?

Lizzie Klotz in MK Ultra.© Brian Slater. (Click image for larger version)
Lizzie Klotz in MK Ultra.
© Brian Slater. (Click image for larger version)

What it means

But what this incredible world reveals is far more than just a crazy conspiracy theory that generally young people are aware of, and older people are not. This world holds up a mirror to where we are now. Do we all think we are stars now? Are we the stars in our own reality TV show, and each aspect of our lives defines our individuality? Each product we buy or activity we do shows how separate and special we are, but in fact we are not free, perhaps we have been sold a dream and we are living in a brainwashed state?  We are living in our own bubble, we see our version of the truth, and live our lives surrounded by information that helps reinforce the bubble of reality we inhabit. And like our pop stars, our programming is starting to dysfunction, we are starting to see through our dream, and waking up from the sleepwalk that has taken us into the harsh reality of where we are now. As one young person put it succinctly; “we used to believe, we used to be told what was real by our leaders, but since recent events, we’ve been let down. Now we fend for ourselves”.

Rosie Kay Dance Company in MK Ultra.© Brian Slater. (Click image for larger version)
Rosie Kay Dance Company in MK Ultra.
© Brian Slater. (Click image for larger version)

In this new world reality, it’s not just the New World Order we need to be afraid of, it’s our lack of leadership and the forces that fill this vacuum as we stumble along, half awake, half asleep. Or maybe we are just about to wake up, and realise that there is a new reality, just around the corner, or is it ‘over the rainbow’?

About the author

Rosie Kay

Rosie Kay is an award winning choreographer and director of Rosie Kay Dance Company - a company with a reputation for making bold, original and exciting works that challenge perceptions and take on innovative subjects.

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