We caught up with Rosie Kay, one of the UK’s leading female choreographers and director of Rosie Kay Dance Company, to know more about MK Ultra and the process behind the show.
How is the tour going so far?
The tour has been amazing so far! We kicked off to a home crowd in Birmingham, and got a lot of support. Since then we’ve been to Lincoln, Kendal, York and London. Each one has been special, but I’d say York was memorable because of the beauty of the Theatre Royal – I felt the theatre itself suited the work – we like a bit of royal gilt edging! Then London was important – we sold out about 10 days in advance, and most of the dance journalists and London programmers attended as well. It was certainly high pressure, but the cast absolutely rose to the occasion, and we’ve been rewarded with fantastic reviews.
What inspired you to start this project?
This is the third part of a trilogy of works that all explore difficult and controversial topics through the body. The first part was 5 Soldiers created in 2010 and it’s still touring now (we launch 5 Soldiers at Edinburgh Festival this year in fact, with support from The Army). The second part was There is Hope, which explored religion and beliefs. This third part was meant to be about politics – little did I know that by going off piste, down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theory, I actually would be spot on right now with the political zeitgeist with the rise of ‘fake news’ and distrust in mainstream media messages! I spent a lot of time researching conspiracy theory, but when I came across the theory that pop stars are under some kind of brainwashing programming, based on the real MK Ultra CIA programme, I thought this struck a chord with me. We see mainstream pop entertainment as meaningless, but what if actually it was spreading a dark, occult message to our children? I went out and worked with 14 to 25 year olds across the East and West Midlands and discovered they knew ALL about this stuff – the pop stars, the brainwashing and all the Illuminati signs in the pop videos. They even had a good grasp of explaining to me why perhaps these pop stars were being used to spread these messages. I was totally fascinated and wanted to make something very avant-garde out of this mainstream pop world that subverted an already quite subversive culture. I also wanted to break out of the contemporary dance mould, and make a new kind of dance that crossed forms.
How did the collaboration with television journalist Adam Curtis come about?
Actually, The Observer dance critic Luke Jennings introduced us both. It took a while for us to meet, by which time I was just about to start the rehearsal process. But we talked and talked, and both got very excited about how much we knew about the subject and what we felt it meant. We wanted to communicate to the audience both the actual facts of the origins of this theory as well as what is real (MK Ultra and the CIA) and what was not (Disney’s involvement and the pop stars) but also what we thought it meant about reality now. Adam also understood that through the medium of dance, I wanted to communicate something more mysterious, more felt and emotive, than just fact. We argued quite a bit about getting that balance right!
How did you integrate the projections and documentaries with the choreography and music?
Every evening after rehearsals I would sit and watch and listen to what the collaborators were delivering to me: the films; the new video projections; and the music. The benefit with the music and video is that I’ve worked with Annie Mahtani and Louis Price now for many years, and we utterly trust one another. With the video projections, my husband made a sketch of the whole show (once I had my structure) and then we sat down over three weekends and worked on the show from start to finish, so at least we could do it at home together. With the music, I spent about five or six mornings with Annie in her studio, listening, talking through the tracks we felt would stay in the work (Trap music) and what felt to be an original composition. She sent me tracks on a weekly basis, then as we got firmer in our structure she started to build in complex transitions so that the show score felt like one.
With Adam, I wasn’t sure how he would work! I was over the moon when an incredibly edited, quintessentially ‘Adam Curtis’ 5-minute documentary arrived in my Dropbox just before I started rehearsals. I was gobsmacked – it was everything we had talked about, but presented in a crisp, visual and atmospheric way. I loved it straight away!
The visual element is quite prominent even outside the show, as we can see from the “Stars of MK Ultra”’s Instagram accounts. Can you tell us more about this?
In a lot of my work, I do character development with the cast, to help them make choices on stage, and to really embody their roles in a deep and thoughtful way. This show was no different, but we were struck by the attitude of young people to how much their social media profile was a persona that they filtered. A lot of young people talked about the pressures of looking beautiful, looking successful, looking busy, but also their fears of being watched and stepping out of line (drunken snaps seen by a future employer for example). I felt we are already living in a big brother world, but self censoring. Because of this element to the work, each dancer developed their own alter-ego – a pop star in MK Ultra, who would reach out to their fans through social media. It was a real-life device that they could use to help create their personal ‘brand’ in the work, and they really enjoyed doing it!
The show is high-energetic and intense. What is a regular rehearsal day like? How do you keep the energy levels up with the ensemble?
Well first of all, due to having a very young family, I try not to work for more than 3 weeks at a stretch. This gives me time between rehearsals to be with my son and help with normal stuff, and also go away and reflect on my work. So we work intensely, but we also have period away from he studio. We do class 10.00-11.00, a mix of ballet, contemporary, fitness, street and jazz (we need a range of skills kept up to scratch for this work). We then work through the day in 55 minute stretches, with always an hour off for lunch to eat, digest and refresh. I try to end between 5 and 5.30pm in time to get home for bedtime, and I let the dancers go over notes or stretch out, until about 5.45. Due to the nature of MK Ultra, dancers could do a lot of work on their own, learning solo and group routines from video (these are videos of me improvising the material to the music), and I would work either one-to-one on solo work, in big unison numbers, or on creating original lift and group sections. By the end of three weeks we had a sketch of a show, and by the middle of the fifth week we had a finished show, in terms of the dance content.
What is the message that you would like to send across the audience with this piece?
I want us to realise that reality is not imposed upon us. We create the reality around us. Theatre makers and dancers know this, so do astrophysicists! The news is not empowering us to take control and to make real change. They are helping us feel powerless and (a new phrase I just picked up on social media) ‘world-whelmed’. World-whelmed is when you’re totally overcome by the feeling that, not content with the anxiety inducing events of your own life, there are about 200 other issues exploding on the world stage that make Armageddon not just look possible, but highly likely! I feel that we DO live in a world of propaganda, and we’ve got to stop feeling either selfish (I’m OK thanks very much) or helpless (there is nothing I can do) and actually do something. Of course, that’s not all in 1 hr 20 of dance, but I do want to undermine people’s sense of what’s real and what’s not real, and get them to be a little bit more sympathetic to our young people who are trying to decipher all of this and not go mad.
Do you have any advice for young performers/dancers/choreographers that want to start a career in this field?
Be as active as possible – go and see as much work as you can, and do as much dancing and as many styles as you can. What I saw as a young person hugely influenced me and my attitude to dance and theatre, whether it was Siobhan Davies first ever tour, or Pina Bausch, or the RSC on a rural tour to school halls! That sense of magic, mystery and beauty has never left me and while I get older and more critical, I strive to keep my childlike sense of awe in the arts. Nowadays, it’s important to be versatile in dance – so doing lots of classes is important, but also finding the best teachers and the best training institutions (such as the Centre for Advanced Training scheme) so you can understand the demands of dance early on. If you really truly love it, it drives you and if it’s your passion, you will succeed no matter what. It’s a very tough profession – physically, emotionally, financially, but it’s the most rewarding life and I feel very lucky.
We have a very lively and active artistic community on our campus, with several award-winning dance societies. What do you think of the Birmingham/Warwickshire dance scene and do you have any suggestions for our students in terms of things to see and do?
I’m not originally from here (I’m from Scotland and grew up in Devon as a child), and returned to the UK after several years abroad working as a dancer. I specifically chose the West Midlands, as I saw the range of support that was on offer, the enthusiasm for the arts that was very real, and some of the most friendly audiences I’ve ever encountered! Now Birmingham has grown so much in stature and the new Dance Hub is very exciting. Warwick Arts Centre is one of my favourite theatres and as an audience member I frequently attend to watch both dance and theatre as I know it will always be of outstanding quality. My advice would be similar to the last question – do as much as you can, learn other styles as well as what you feel comfortable doing (it will improve your skills and open your mind!) and see as much dance as possible. I’m constantly amazed at what a huge, versatile and beautiful art form dance is, and how much it can excite and move me.
What are your plans after the tour?
Well, it’s a few days off, then on to 5 Soldiers rehearsals! So it’s get out the Bergans and the uniforms, dust off the boots, and go do some serious square bashing! In all honesty, I’m pleased I’m going back into the studio to do something so different to MK Ultra – its like seeing an old friend again. Somewhere during that period, I’m also going to get a summer holiday (which is a rare pleasure) and in the Autumn I’ll be starting my next new work, Fantasia.
Rosie Kay’s MK Ultra is at Warwick Arts Centre on Thu 11 & Fri 12 May, 7.30pm. For more information and to book tickets, click here