Friday, 26 May 2017

Ultra Dramaturgy: Rosie Kay on tour

Scottish-born choreographer returns with subversive new show, MK ULTRA

• A new dance work, performed by seven young dancers, explores conspiracy theory within the entertainment industry and the idea that child stars are brainwashed from a young age

• Lady Gaga designer Gary Card creates his first costume designs for contemporary dance

• Adam Curtis, known for Hypernormalisation that recently featured on the BBC, is a creative collaborator on the show and has created short films to be shown throughout

What was the inspiration behind this performance?

This is the third part of a trilogy of works, tackling big ‘non-dinner-party’ topics! The first was war + the body (5 Soldiers), the second was exploring religion through the body (There is Hope) and this final part was to be politics and the body. I went in quite a few directions to begin with, exploring the novel 1984, surveillance, propaganda and even torture. 

Through my research, I came across an online world of conspiracy theory, some I’d heard of, or were on my periphery, and others that were new to me. When I came across the conspiracy theory that pop stars are under the control of ‘The Illuminati’ (some kind of shadowy elite that control music, fashion, entertainment but also politics, science, finance) I felt that it was an exciting area to explore. 

The theory is that children are picked, and then undergo some kind of brainwashing, which was invented by the CIA (this is partly based on real historical events - the CIA developed brainwashing experiments in the 1950s and 1960s, one such method was code named MK Ultra). 

These pop stars then are catapulted into extreme stardom and while achieving worldwide global fame, are under a strict and ultimately destructive kind of brainwashing that can start to affect them, hence the breakdowns. It’s a fantastical theory, but it hit me with something true about the world we live in now - our weird celebrity culture clashing with ‘real news’ of war and atrocities, and our distrust in news and now ‘fake news’. I think we are all questioning what kind of reality we are living in.

After deciding on the subject matter, I wanted to know if it were just a small group of fanatics that knew about it, or if young people were aware of this alternative information about mainstream pop stars. 

I conducted workshops with 14-25 year olds all over the East and West Midlands and asked them ostensibly about their view on ‘mainstream’ media. Eventually, the magic words ‘the Illuminati’ would be whispered and when I told them I wanted to know everything about this, they erupted! 

One girl was heard as she left the workshop saying ‘I can’t believe we just talked about the illuminati in the classroom’. Young people not only knew about the theories I’d investigated, they’d known about them for a long time, and they were also aware that it may or may not be true. This was such an interesting state of being to me, that Adam Curtis and I returned to interview quite a few of the young people I’d worked with initially to include their opinions in the show.

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas?

Well, there are others ways of course, through writing, through talking, through other art forms and media. For me, dance helps me understand the mysteries of the world - some things can be killed if explained or rationalized, so many ideas live in the felt, lived and emotional dimension. I think dance has the magic to capture that. 

I also want to make people think and to challenge their perceptions, and so through my work, I use dance, but also non-linear narrative, character, video, music and documentary to help audiences find different ways into my world. I think we crave group experiences, and so a performance can give us a shared experience, and with my work, hopefully the space to have your own interpretation of it. I love that fact that in dance you do have to think and interpret a bit. 

You have to watch and go, ‘OK what’s happening here’. I let layers of meaning be revealed, but I like not to be too explicit at all times, and leave areas of question and doubt. These form spaces that you join together in your mind.

How did you become interested in making performance?

I think I danced before I could talk. Dance for me was a way of making sense of the world. The world is so vast, so confusing, and I felt things so strongly, that dance was at once a strong discipline and daily personal practice, with its ritual and repetition. 

It was also an emotional release, a place I could channel my heart and soul through my body and find that it communicated deeply with people. Now I perform far less, but I seek this quality from the artists I work with, and I help draw it out of them. I think my company are extraordinary dancers, but they are also exceptional performers, actors and communicators.

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

Yes- there is a very particular way I’ve made this work, and its quite odd. After the research on the Internet and with groups of young people, I spent time with my company doing task-based work and trying to find the physical language of the work. It’s a hybrid world of pop, street, hip-hop dance styles but I wanted it to have an Avant-Garde cutting edge feel with contemporary and ballet techniques running through the movement vocabulary. I couldn’t find it at first, so I went into the studio on my own and improvised with the music tracks I thought captured the feel of the work. 

I realized that this highly original, and slightly weird language was in my body, so I filmed my improvisations, normally doing 3 or 4 on a set theme or set section of music, then chose the best, or the one I thought captured what I wanted, and gave it to the dancer. Each dancer received a video of their solo and they all received a video of the unison work. The first week was a bizarre sight. 

They were plugged into laptops and iPads with headphones in, each meticulously learning their sections alone or in groups. It was a little alienating for them at first, but we’d do sharings every few hours and it was incredible how this language developed through all their bodies.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

For one, I don’t have a ‘usual’ production. I think all my productions are unique, but together they add up to a body of unique works with unique approaches to subject and form. MK Ultra is the work I wanted to make, and it really does make sense if seen with its predecessors, 5 Soldiers and There is Hope. Through these three works, I’ve tested myself enormously, whether it be through the intense research, through the methodologies of each work, which felt very authentic to the subject matter, or though the results. 

MK Ultra is like the others in that it is very visual, has emotional depth, and its quite intricately choreographed, but it’s not like the others, because the subject matter demanded very different things from me. I’m interested to see where I go next, as I feel my palette is now ready to stabalise and become more highly articulate, perhaps in fewer directions.

What do you hope the audience will experience?

I want the audience to go with me on a brainwashing experience. I want them to sit on a lovely line between mainstream pop entertainment and disturbing avant-garde art! MK Ultra is
visually dazzling, over stimulating, beautiful, disturbing and funny. I want audiences to be on the edge of their seats and also let their brains go free!

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

Wow- we’ve used a lot here! We have mind-boggling original documentary footage from Adam Curtis, which includes interviews with MK Ultra victims and the CIA boss who sanctioned it, we’ve got full-on illuminati referencing, mind bending video work from Louis Price, we’ve got trippy repetitive music composed by Annie Mahtani, and of course we have seven utterly incredible, athletic performers who give it heart and soul. We also have Gary Card’s stunning costumes, which have been described as a ‘work of art’ in themselves, or alternatively, ‘a masonic rave’! I find the work overwhelming. It’s at once glossy pop and heart-felt art. It’s beautiful.

Rosie Kay Dance Company, headed by artistic director and choreographer Rosie Kay and winner of Best Independent Company at the Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards in 2015, finishes its UK tour of MK ULTRA in Stirling on Thursday 18 May at Macrobert Art Centre. The show has created headlines in The Guardian, Financial Times and iNews for its exploration of mind control and subliminal messaging within the entertainment industry - a theory that grew from the CIA's real mind control experiments in the 60s.

Following several years of research with young people into the world of contemporary pop culture and their theories around who pulls the strings behind the scenes of politics, economics and the entertainment industry, MK ULTRA will bring a hypnotic, supercharged mash-up of dance, music, costume and film to the stage. Renowned for tackling pertinent and challenging subject matters, RKDC’s latest work is timely in the context of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ as it explores how easily fact and fiction can get tangled.

Born in Scotland, Rosie Kay is one of the UK’s leading female choreographers and is renowned for her athletic movement, rigorous research and intelligent theatricality. Kay, a research associate to the University of Oxford School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, choreographed the hit feature film Sunshine on Leith and is best known for the five star and award-winning 5 SOLDIERS.

Also featuring in the team is sought-after designer Gary Card who will be designing his first costumes for contemporary dance. A set designer, illustrator and one of London’s most talked about talents, Card has worked with pop stars such as Lady Gaga, designing props and headdresses for her Monster Ball tour. His designs have also featured in the collections of Comme Des Garçons, Topshop, House of Holland, Nike, Adidas, Stella McCartney and Penguin.

Rosie Kay had this to say about the show: “MK Ultra is the result of three years intense research, which have taken me through the world of surveillance, state police, torture and brainwashing, through to pop culture, mainstream media and celebrity breakdowns, all the way back to politics and a comment on the post-culturism state we are in now.

Spending time exploring the deep rabbit hole of conspiracy theory took me into strange realms of CIA brainwashing, celebrity training and Illuminati symbolism hidden in pop culture. At a time when everything is fake, or at least we don’t trust what’s real any more, MK Ultra looks at what this world really feels like and what affect it is having on us, whether we know it or not.

Be prepared for high-energy, high-octane dance, a mash up of dance styles, subliminal and secret messages, incredible video, light and costume visuals, music that wraps around your senses and a deeper, darker political edge. Be prepared, there is twerking.”

Filmmaker Adam Curtis said: “Over the past twenty years millions of people have given up believing in the grand stories told them by politicians and others in power. This has created a vacuum into which have rushed all kinds of strange and bizarre stories about the hidden forces that are really controlling the world.

I find them fascinating - because, on the one hand they show how in our chaotic and uncertain time people are desperately seeking evidence that someone, anyone, is really in control. But at the same time people also hate the idea of control - because everybody these days wants to be an independent, free individual. And I think it is the tension between these two - the desire for control and the desire for freedom - that leads to such strange and bizarre stories rising up.

I think Rosie’s idea to explore this strange world is brilliant. Because it is a way of looking at how people really see the world today. It’s a way of looking behind the shiny surface of modern society - a surface that the politicians and their journalistic allies are desperately trying to hold in place - and seeing the real tensions and anxieties that are actually shaping how we feel today.”

MK ULTRA will feature seven outstanding dancers- Shanelle Clemenson, Harriet Ellis, Shelley Eva Haden, Lizzie Klotz, Joao Maio, Ryan Munroe and Oliver Russell.

MK ULTRA is supported using public funding by Arts Council England and is commissioned by DanceXchange, Warwick Arts Centre & Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

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