MK ULTRA at Southbank Centre

Cleverly introduced by the words “Some of this is untrue” (although the inception of the show predates the concept of ‘fake news’ by at almost a decade), MK ULTRA is a sensory experience for eyes, ears and (perhaps most of all) the brain.

We are presented with an exploration through dance (and other media) of the rise and fall of conspiracy theories, more specifically of myths that see the CIA plotting with Walt Disney in the early ’60s to spread dangerous ideas, and the Illuminati brainwashing and manipulating pop stars like Britney Spears and Justin Bieber. If you feel a bit lost, don’t worry, you’re meant to. MK ULTRA has a narrative, but deliberately eschews traditional storytelling and avoids an easy-to-pinpoint plot. It takes its cue from the notion of conspiracy theories, but takes off from there in unexpected, dazzling, totally unforgettable ways.

The dance show is a collaboration between choreographer Rosie Kay and filmmaker Adam Curtis, where the former brings her extensive research on the rise of the Illuminati, as well as her vast experience in the dance world, and the latter adds his fascination with documentary storytelling and politics. The result is something utterly innovative and unique.

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MK ULTRA by Rosie Kay Dance Company

Aesthetically, the show is compelling. The dance element involves the most bizarre combination of contemporary, hip-hop, street commercial and twerking. It’s a very mechanical and highly sexualised dancing, drawing from the world of music videos, acrobatics, and Rosie’s own wide-ranging artistic background. Fascinatingly, this is the most “prescriptive” project she’s worked on, with all routines based exclusively on her own improvisations, filmed in in the dance studio and subsequently taught to the performers.

The music is a pulsing soundtrack of American trap music and a mesmerising score by electro-acoustic composer Annie Mahtani. Annoyingly repetitive and catchy, it’s just as hammering and pounding as the brainwashing we are being told about.

The visual aspect, featuring colourful cat suits by Lady Gaga’s designer Gary Card, a gold mirrored stage, and triangular projections by Louis Price, is just arresting. The videos in particular, with a distinctively post-modern flavour, complement the dance in a stark contrast, as well as providing some (but by no means all) contextual information.

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MK ULTRA by Rosie Kay Dance Company

The shows is subversively and engagingly political, fleshing out (quite literally) the disturbing effects of dangerous myths and modern cults. In the post-show discussion, Curtis formulated the interesting concept of a new kind aesthetic, combining straight storytelling with an emotional experience. With a mixture of abstract dancing and theatrical storytelling, MK ULTRA taps into the most sensory channels of the audience, while at the same time feeding them with stimulating ideas. This is dance that is at once prodigiously sensuous and highly political.”

 

MK ULTRA played at Southbank Centre on 8th November.

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