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MK Ultra review – Adam Curtis doc dominates Rosie Kay’s Illuminati dance

Charismatic candidate … Shelley Eva Haden, centre, in MK Ultra by Rosie Kay Dance Company. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Charismatic candidate … Shelley Eva Haden, centre, in MK Ultra by Rosie Kay Dance Company. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Laban theatre, London
In a stylish collaboration, the film-maker and choreographer explore the myth of a shadowy cult attempting world domination through mass brainwashing

Last modified on Tue 28 Nov 2017 01.39 GMT

A gainst a rising tide of fake news and conspiracy theories, choreographer Rosie Kay and film-maker Adam Curtis have found a timely subject for their new collaboration, MK Ultra. Splicing together documentary footage and a pumped-up stream of dance and music, this two-hour work tells the story of how a generation of under-25s have come to believe in the Illuminati, a shadowy cult they say is attempting world domination through mass brainwashing.

According to popular myth, the cult operates by grooming targeted individuals to become celebrities, using pop stars such as Britney Spears to disseminate the cult’s agenda through the content of their songs and videos. MK Ultra is an exceptionally stylish production. Illuminati imagery percolates through every aspect of its design, from the pyramid-shaped film screen to the arcane symbols that decorate the seven dancers’ costumes.

Curtis’s documentary uses a characteristically sophisticated blend of contemporary interview and archive footage to narrate the rise of the Illuminati myth, while Kay’s choreography portrays a group of dancers who have apparently been signed up to the Illuminati programme, drilling themselves for stardom through a relentlessly competitive (and cleverly parodic) regime of twerking, urban, sexy moves.

There are the beginnings of an emotional subtext here, as Kay portrays vivid moments of slippage between the dancers’ individual personalities and the automated efficiency of their stage personas. Lizzie Klotz hints at a vulnerable girl, artlessly practising her celebrity smile and her faux foxy strut: Shelley Eva Haden is the most obvious and charismatic candidate for success, but there are times when even her character’s self-belief falters and her body stalls into a dysfunctional shudder.

Frustratingly, these hints of an interior life are undeveloped, and the work remains dominated by Curtis’s film. Clearly, the myth of the Illuminati was an important starting point for Kay, but while her choreography seems to strive towards a more humanly imagined dimension, the film sequences keep pulling her back into the realm of documentary fact.

• At Eden Court, Inverness, 25 April. Box office: 01463 234234. Then touring until 18 May.

MK Ultra, touring until May. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

In a stylish collaboration, the film-maker and choreographer explore the myth of a shadowy cult attempting world domination through mass brainwashing

MK Ultra review – Rosie Kay, Adam Curtis and the Illuminati

Laban theatre, London; and touring
The choreographer and the film-maker delve into the supposed New World Order in a wildly ambitious new work

Shelley Eva Haden, centre, in MK Ultra by Rosie Kay Dance Company: ‘a postmodern Fantasia’. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

Shelley Eva Haden, centre, in MK Ultra by Rosie Kay Dance Company: ‘a postmodern Fantasia’. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

Last modified on Wed 21 Mar 2018 23.52 GMT

F or decades, the CIA and the Walt Disney corporation have been brainwashing child stars such as Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and Justin Bieber, programming them to spread subliminal messages in support of a shadowy New World Order. The affairs of the world are controlled not by governments but by a centuries-old occult order known as the Illuminati.

Bizarre though they sound, these beliefs are increasingly widespread, especially among young people for whom the pronouncements of authority figures no longer ring true. The internet is awash with such theories. The choreographer Rosie Kay and film-maker Adam Curtis had both been investigating this field for some years when, in 2016, they agreed to collaborate on a dance work. And here I must declare an interest, because I introduced them to each other.

MK Ultra, the resultant creation, takes its name from the (real) CIA mind-control programme of the 1960s, and it’s a kaleidoscopically peculiar creation. Curtis has created a film, voiced by himself, in which arcane and cabbalistic imagery is intercut with pop culture footage. This plays on a triangular screen (the triangle is a symbol of the Illuminati) as Kay’s seven dancers perform to Annie Mahtani’s electronic score.

Kay’s choreography takes the mechanically sexualised vocabulary of the pop video, with its buttocky writhings and dead-eyed crotch grabbing, and reconfigures it as hieratic ritual. Enigmatic solos alternate with cryptic, geometric tableaux. Shelley Eva Haden is the central figure, at once immortal fantasy heroine and cult priestess. The dances unfold in a blizzard of referential imagery. Triangles, pyramids, butterflies, thrones, chequered floors: all are symbols of the Illuminati, and according to Kay and Curtis, such images are liberally seeded into pop videos by producers aware of their young viewers’ predilections.

Kay’s mysterious choreography and Curtis’s jarring images combine with Mahtani’s manipulated samples to unsettling and often baffling effect. MK Ultra’s creators calculatedly overload us. What’s unexpected is that the result is less sinister and troubling than playful. Kay and Curtis offer us a postmodern fantasia that can be accessed by a young audience who are fully aware of its fundamental implausibility, but who, alienated by the pronouncements of the political, cultural and religious establishment, wish to play their own fantastical games with the truth.

Cracks appear from time to time. The piece could be shorter and tighter, and there are moments when the choreography gets lost in the thing it’s exploring. Simulated masturbation doesn’t become something else by being recontextualised. But MK Ultra asks important questions about the real and the fake, and whether, for a new generation, they’ve become one.

The choreographer and the film-maker delve into the supposed New World Order in a wildly ambitious new work