Rosie Kay’s MK Ultra is an ambitious project which tackles complex thematic sources. Conspiracy theories, brain washing and mind-control, not to mention myths about secret societies such as the Illuminati (a shadowy elite who tried to take over state control) and the American brainwashing technique, MK Ultra, which was used by the CIA in the 50’s to train up spies & soldiers, provide the inspiration for her show, premiered in 2016, and now reworked for the Queen Elizabeth Hall and touring.
Just trying to explain the myths, facts and truths that surround the MK Ultra programme and how some believed it to have been used by Disney and the CIA to create robotic pop stars, as well as the Illuminati and conspiracy theories which infiltrate popular culture today, would take up my whole review. However, you can find detailed information about them in Kay’s extensive programme notes and also on the web. For the actual performance, Kay uses fragments of Adam Curtis’s fascinating documentary about MK Ultra and the rise of conspiracy theories in the internet age to steer us through the bombardment of visual, embodied and aural information.
While watching, I have to remind myself not to agonize over trying to decipher what is true or fake about these mind-messing topics but engage with the actual performance and keep focused on what Kay wants us to take from it. Her main message is about popular culture today and how our minds are controlled by the media and social media. While her work is accessible to all, it possibly carries the most resonance with young people, who buy into conspiracy theories and feel confused about what to believe or dismiss in the news; or, who destabilised by the world’s chaos, mistake fake for real. According to Kay, many teenagers believe that some of their favourite celebrities are part of the new Illuminati.
Kay’s company of seven dancers dazzle from beginning to end with their energy and commitment to working in a tight team. While their flamboyant physical language is based on the posturing and over-sexualised movements of commercial dance, as seen in music videos, they also have to combine it with challenging fluid and expressive contemporary technique. In the manner of models, they enter and exit with their pelvises thrust out while vigorously shaking their butts or chests, touching themselves suggestively driven by the treated, thumping, repetitive pop music. Here krumping styles are blended with big athletic leaps and intricate arm gestures. Subtler, more inventive action happens in the quieter reflective sections of the work, and this contrasts effectively with the bland ‘aerobic-class’ style look of the unison phrases as seen in many formulaic pop videos. It’s demanding and punishing choreography, but the company are on top of their game.
Dressed in busily patterned psychedelic unitards which display the symbols of the Illuminati and other secret sects, the dancers could be part of a modern-day Busby Berkeley extravaganza. Their bodies become subsumed by the synthetic colours and cartoon snippets featuring in the crowded video collage which plays continuously on the cyclorama and become de-humanised. It’s a manic spectacle and quite exhausting to watch as often the visual distractions dominate at the expense of the live bodies. However, it is a poignant reflection on the overload of visual and media culture with its empty signs and superficial information.
What’s clever about the show is how the dancers deal with loss of agency (as a result of brain-washing). While there are traces of individuality in verbal utterances, facial expressions or the use of voice – Carina Howard singing as she is precariously carried by Luke Bradshaw, Nicholas Tredrea & Joao Maio – most of the time their faces are like celebrity masks with pouting, flirty lips and vacant smiles. Howard who portrays a Britney Spears type, initiated into the group then experimented on, becomes increasingly flat and two dimensional following a break down – and here we see news footage of a pathetic Britney disoriented and in tears. There are moments like this when MK Ultra is convincingly believable.
While there seems to be a disconnect between the huge, mind-fucking concepts and what actually happens on stage in MK Ultra, i.e. the former dominates the latter, Kay sparks massive intrigue from her meticulously researched work. The questions she exposes around celebrity culture, social media and increasing paranoia about organisations which hold power in our real world today, will not be forgotten.