On October 30 1938, The War of the Worlds, an episode of an American radio drama narrated by Orson Welles based on H.G. Wells novel spread panic among listeners who actually thought the Earth was being invaded by an alien power. For decades, this episode had an exceptional (nearly absurd) character. Today, however, we observe a steep surge in the number of individuals who believe in conspiracy theories, most notably via online forums. The result is an increasing number of people who tend to be suspicious of science and of “the establishment”. Despite the seriousness of the problem, only recently have conspiracy theories gained more attention from academics, journalists and politicians. For artists such as choreographer Rosie Kay, these theories are a way of making a more profound critique of contemporary society.

© Courtesy of Southbank Centre
© Courtesy of Southbank Centre

MK Ultra is the fruit of six years of research that bring together contemporary anthropology, social psychology and performing arts to explore the world of conspiracy theories. The show is inspired by the top-secret CIA mind control program MKUltra, which indeed took place in prisons and hospitals in North America between 1953 and 1964 (reports can be accessed on line). The seven dancers of Rosie Kay’s company, however, are the characters of a fictional performative documentary where the young popstars of the Disney Club brainwash masses of young people by diffusing encrypted messages of secret societies such as the Illuminati. Symbols such as snakes, pyramids, omniscient eyes, which are highlighted in the costumes by Gary Gard, are the bridge between the “real” MKUltra experiment, and the conspiracy theories that stem from it.

The beginning of the performance evokes a pop-music Faustian pact where Britney Spears symbolizes the quest for stardom of a generation to whom success is measured by money, and a glittering lifestyle, media exposure and social media followers. The routines of the first half of the performance are energetic and well-synchronized – just as in Britney’s Baby One More Time video, from which the choreographer clearly took inspiration, and which is shown at the back of the stage in specific places. The audience may identify subliminal symbols throughout the performance – it is hard not to think about Freemasons’ representations of the triangle, or formations associated with the Hindu goddess Kali when several arms seem to grow from the body of the dancer in front of the line. After all, one of the features of any conspiracy theory is to establish connections between apparently unrelated elements.

Kay creatively and skilfully brings together elements of African dance, classical ballet (namely in the sequence of brisés performed by the boys) and 1980s high-impact aerobics competitions. The posture and expression of the dancers is deliberately artificial - like mannequins in a department store or ham actors from a 1990s soap-opera – which adds another layer of complexity to Kay’s choreography. As the performance develops, however, the audience is confronted with the sinister consequences of the experiment, which eventually leaves the popstars emotionally crippled. We first notice some glitches in the choreography; these are followed by a desperate attempt to catch the attention (and affection) of the audience, before the movements become so rigid that the dancer can no longer perform. For conspiracy theorists, the malfunctions experienced by the popstar are the result of a brainwashing experiment carried out by the CIA and Walt Disney; for Kay, however, they are a consequence of the desire for uniqueness and the fear that we will not be loved unless we are permanently interesting, productive and special. Like the popstars, our way of living might be collapsing, which can lead to a new world order and a “happier reality” (in Kay’s words). 

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