HOME, Manchester

4th May 2017

Rosie Kay‘s new work MK ULTRA is a fantasy world away from the harsh realities of her last piece the intense and intimate 5 Soldiers. However it shares the same collaborative ethos and immersive approach that makes her work so distinctive. And if the British Army wasn’t a big enough topic this time Kay’s taking on the Illuminati – or rather the myths that swarm around it.

The message ‘THIS IS FAKE THEATRE’ flashes up at the beginning – is it a boast or a warning? Layers of symbolism associated with the Illuminati penetrate every aspect of the production. The stage with its dominating triangular screen, highly polished floor and strangely ominous throne provides a glossy, busy backdrop for a company of dancers in tight vividly coloured body suits patterned with even more significant symbols.

The myths of the Illuminati are many but Kay focuses in on the apparently widely held belief that many of the mega-famous have been co-opted by the cult to act on their behalf. Taking that premise the company creates the story of a group of aspiring celebrities struggling within the controlled roles assigned to them as part of the conspiracy. The dancers inhabit the familiar world and physical language of pop videos – from synchronised urban dance moves through to sexualized thrusting and dry-humping. There is a lot of high energy movement with touches of humour. From the beat-driven soundtrack familiar refrains, lyrics and voices suddenly emerge like subliminal messages, only to disappear back into the insistent insidiously addictive musical mix.

There is some incredible group work with dancers fanning out from a tight cluster gracefully or all lined up behind each other with multiple arms gesturing like a Hindu god. Some of the faster sections are reminiscent of Hofesh Shechter’s work although both companies take inspiration from elements of tribal ritual and club dance culture. There are some standout moments involving individual dancers held aloft – their bodies carefully manoeuvred, as if in slow motion, in to acrobatic tumbling, turns and twists. Their fellow dancers carry them off stage ceremoniously or lower them on to the ground. Their torso and limbs held and placed in to position creating an incredible sense of a life controlled, strings being pulled and choices restricted. Occasionally solo dancers wear themselves out in a gradual frenzy as if trying to break free from a straitjacket.  Other times they slow their movements right down isolating an arm or leg moving it jerkily as if broken or damaged.

For a dance piece there is much emphasis on facial expressions – exaggerated pouting or more often the surprised smiling of promotional imagery. For a lot of the time the dancers stare right out at us. After a while the fixed smiles take on a look of demented hysteria, silently imploring us to help. There is a similar trajectory with the frantic hand work – peeping through fingers or palms held high and open, the dancers semaphore to us using the well documented hand gestures of the Illuminati. Gradually their coded waving seem increasingly desperate like jazz hand distress signals.

Interspersed within the often breathlessly energetic dance, the voice of documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis is a calming contrast. His trademark video collages flare up on-screen to weave an absurd confection taking in the media manipulation of Operation Mindfuck; CIA brainwashing operation MK Ultra; the unlikely re-emergence of a 17th century Bavarian cult and, the cherry on the cake, the involvement of Walt Disney. More worrying are the video interviews with young people, alienated from contemporary society, tying themselves in illogical knots to justify their belief in this cultish fantasy.

It is a tale both sinister and ridiculous and the company capture that tension brilliantly. Mixed in with the strong sense of fear and discomfort there is also humour and absurdity. Who knew deconstructing conspiracy theories could be such fun? Brash, colourful, playful and pertinent Kay’s eye-popping Illuminati-baiting is sensational.

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