Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

MK ULTRA

Rosie Kay
Rosie Kay Dance Company
HOME, Manchester
03 May 2017 to 04 May 2017

The choreography in 5 Soldiers, Rosie Kay’s last production, was inspired by the martial movements of the military. With MK ULTRA the choreographer goes to another extreme taking inspiration from the disco. 

Yet MK ULTRA is not a pure dance production. Extensive use is made of narration and video projection; in fact the first ten minutes or so feature no dance at all as the narrator sets the scene. On a pyramid-shaped screen Louis Price’s video scenes from 1950’s/1960’s America set a deceptively cheerful background. The narrator tells of the development of the puppet masters The Illuminati (hence the pyramid screen), from a mock religion called The Discordia, who performed anarchic pranks, into a worldwide conspiracy. MK ULTRA is part of this project, involving the likes of Walt Disney plotting how to wipe the minds of beloved entertainers and add new personalities. Just to make sure the show is bang up to date, a caption reminds us ‘This is Fake Theatre.’ 

When Hollywood discovered drug culture it became compulsory for movies to feature a scene that simulated the effect of drugs – scenes shot through unusual lens, at odd angles, in weird colours and with a trippy soundtrack. Thankfully, the heightened reality of MK ULTRA avoids such clichés. Initially Rosie Kay seems to be taking a surprisingly positive attitude towards the mind control of the conspiracy - the dancers all seem cheerful and fully committed. 

The choreography is very modern; against Annie Mahtani’s pounding electro beat the dancers grind out moves as if they are on the dance floor in a disco. The tone remains positive even when the score shifts towards more new age / ambient music and the choreography switches to gentle swaying movements. 

The atmosphere is startlingly bright, to the point of seeming almost artificial. Gary Card has clad the company in skin-tight body stockings in such garish colours that they almost make you wince. 

The impact upon a community that is unconsciously submitting to the will of a totalitarian regime is shown with subtlety. As the show progresses the dancers show the corrosive effect of compliance by starting to seem increasingly desperate; behaving more like they are dancing under duress rather than for pleasure. Like addicts they scream in frustration when the soundtrack sticks and they are deprived of their fix. By the second Act the movements become increasingly forced - muscles twitch as if subjected to electric shocks, and smiles become fixed and grotesque as the cost of acquiescence becomes clear.  

MK ULTRA is a fine demonstration of the effectiveness of blending disparate elements to create an intoxicating final product. But pacing is an issue; although the show has a relatively brief running time there is an interval, so Act One ends without any sense of direction being established. Act Two is just getting going when the flow is disrupted by the addition of a chunk of narration.

Reviewer: David Cunningham