dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
Dance explores what is real and what isn't
Birmingham Hippodrome kicks off its new season in the Patrick Studio with city-based choreographer Rosie Kay's MK Ultra.
Named after an American brainwashing experiment, MK Ultra is inspired by ideas of conspiracy theories, mind control and the use of pop music to play with our brains. It's deep stuff and ambitious subject matter for a 90-minute dance piece but Kay blends movement, projection and music to explore the themes.
The production begins with a winking eye and a narrative which shares with us some of the ideas behind the piece. Much of the focus is on a conspiracy theory that a shadowy group known as the Illuminati control the media through subliminal messages in pop music. Immediately we are drawn into a world of uncertainties – what is true, what is fake, who can we trust and who is pulling the strings?
At centre stage are seven dancers exploring these ideas through a recognisable narrative as personalities are created and built up but then brought down and destroyed. In a world of make-believe, even those personalities lose sight of who they really are. Kay's choreography is meaty with a strong physical presence and sexuality but as the work progresses and the characters begin to unravel, this physicality disintegrates and the sexuality becomes exploitative and possessive.
The dancers share the space with a huge pyramid screen on which we see a range of clips from popular culture including singer Britney Spears, a cartoon Mickey Mouse and United States President Donald Trump alongside images of pulsating brains, Alice in Wonderland and outer space. Designed by Louis Price, these projections remind us that the drama taking place among the dancers is part of a much bigger social phenomenon.
A documentary is provided by journalist Adam Curtis who takes us behind the scenes of the MK Ultra experiments – with interview snippets featuring both perpetrator and victim.
Gary Card's full body suit costumes are amazing, featuring a whole range of symbols which shapeshift before our eyes as the dancers move while composer Annie Mahtani's soundtrack blends pop music with pulsating rhythms and forms an integral part of the production.
MK Ultra is packed full of energy and ideas with touches of humour and cynicism – it's very much a product of the current social and media landscape. There's so much going on there's a risk you miss a bit of dance while focussing on the projection or vice versa but then you could argue that only underlines the message – you never quite know everything that is happening around you.
MK Ultra is performed at Birmingham Hippodrome's Patrick Studio until 21 September and tours the UK in October and November, see www.mkultra.dance for full tour details.