Rosie Kay has garnered a reputation for producing engaging works on serious matters that really speak to audiences – hence RKDC being named Best Independent Company at the 2015 National Dance Awards. She is not one to rapidly dash off new pieces and her latest work, MK Ultra, is actually the result of 3 years’ research and navel contemplation. And Kay has found a wonderful subject in conspiracy theory, mind control and fake news – which, as if on cue, has recently become about as topical as you can get. Dance shows don’t come fresher or more thoughtful.
Before seeing the show it’s well worth reading the programme or our feature on the making of MK Ultra, both of which have excellent and extensive notes by Kay on the background to the work. They give useful context, but you don’t have to read up – the show itself is self-documenting with Panorama-style filmed interludes made and narrated by full-on television journalist Adam Curtis. MK Ultra was a CIA programme of experiments around mind control that ran from the 50s to the 1970s, and the documentaries feature much period film. But this dance show also features material on the ‘Illuminati’ – for those that don’t know, to quote Kay: “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.” Older folks (like me) aren’t so aware of the Illuminati concept, but the young seem to be and some of the filmed interludes are with teenagers talking about their perceptions around what they see, particularly pop videos and associated imagery.
I found ail the collateral around MK Ultra fascinating and compelling viewing, but what of the dance? In truth I don’t think that the complexities of the subject are so easy to portray or, more importantly, as revelatory in dance terms as was Kay’s earlier 5 Soldiers (covering the army) and There is Hope (on religion). What we get is slick in both movement and design terms and picking up particularly on the pop video/Illuminati aspects. Led out by the charismatic and powerful Shelley Eva Haden the pop numbers slickly shimmer but after a while I wanted another depth. That came in part with a section in which the young Harriet Ellis was cleverly manipulated every which way by the cast. It may have started tentatively but it rapidly and neatly tightened up. Ellis is fresh out of Bird College and one to watch.
Overall I came away impressed by an intelligent multimedia show that really makes you think about your views and how they have been influenced by what you see and hear in all its rich diversity. And I’m still thinking now – nice one Rosie Kay. (But is that my real view or one cleverly implanted by a devious director?!)