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MK ULTRA
From MK ULTRA

Adam Curtis on how conspiracy theories fuelled his new dance project

The Hypernormalisation filmmaker, alongside choreographer, Rosie Kay, talk about their surreal dance collaboration, MK ULTRA

Questions about power through history and in society today are at the heart of the work by BAFTA-winning British documentary film-maker, Adam Curtis. Features like Century of the Self and Hypernormalisation have caught the public attention for both their thought-provoking nature and completely unusual style for such a mainstream production. But how – and perhaps more importantly, why – is this long time BBC journalist now working on an experimental contemporary dance production?

“To be honest, I loathe dance,” Curtis explains when we sit down to discuss his collaboration with the Birmingham-based choreographer Rosie Kay. “And for a very specific reason. It’s part of the problem of our time in a very clear way – this obsession with self-expression of the individual. That you are expressing yourself, and the idea that that’s radical. Actually, I think it’s a deeply conformist thing to do.”

“People are realising that those in power have no idea what’s going on” – Adam Curtis

The piece, MK ULTRA, which opens in the Southbank on 8 November, references a not too distant history – from the US government’s bizarre but real attempts to use psychoactive drugs to fight the Cold War, to the birth of the music video, and the generation of pop stars that followed it. But it feels timely, too. People don’t believe what they’ve told anymore; fake news and Russian bots, alongside the insidious rise of the far-right, have eroded trust. Rosie Kay began working on the piece in 2014 – well before Trump, Brexit, and all the rest of it. But Kay and Curtis share a similar appetite for big ideas about history, society, and politics.

“At first, I think Adam thought I was pestering him,” Kay reflects back on their first meeting. “I was telling him about all of these pop stars and brainwashing and he just burst out laughing. He absolutely loved it and asked if people actually believed it. And that’s the thing – people actually do.” Despite the differences between mainstream documentary and avant-garde dance, they found an overlapping interest. Curtis isn’t interested in conspiracies, referring to them as “silly stories”. Rather, it’s what draws people towards them. “I know nothing about dance, but I knew I wanted to work with her.”

“Someone commented on Instagram that Adam Curtis was selling out,” Kay explains. Laughing, she adds, “I was shocked by this; we are a niche, contemporary, avant-garde dance company. If anything, we’re the ones selling out, mate!” This Instagram comment was pointing at a larger dynamic at play here – for many Curtis fans, this will be their first exposure to contemporary dance.

But this question of how ideas enter the public realm and influence people is central to the piece too.

It was difficult to find any academics doing research into conspiracies. Yet, from working with young people, Kay noticed they knew exactly what she was talking about. “I was going out to schools, colleges, and universities to talk about media representation, and the Illuminati always came up. They were so well versed in the vocabulary of one eyes, triangles, and hand symbols. That was my starting point.”

“Conspiracy has gone mainstream,” Kay says, talking about the links between conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, political actors like Steve Bannon, and the President of the United States. And it’s a difficult balancing act for her as an artist. The dance company will now receive regular funding from the Arts Council as they’ve achieved status as a National Portfolio Organisation. They’ve choreographed the Commonwealth Games recently. But despite larger projects, more attention, and a wider scale, Kay is focused on her artistic vision. “I’m happy not being world famous. It can be so difficult what we do – even just how physically demanding it is. We’re quite specialised artists.”

Kay describes herself as part of the MTV generation. “I grew up watching these music videos,” she tells me. “As a trained dance professional, I can mimic it, I can do weird things with it. I started to improvise and make all these sequences.” Beginning this piece wasn’t without its risks. People thought it was a crazy idea for a dance production. They were afraid she’d “joined the tinfoil hat brigade”. But she noticed a major difference about who did understand – it was young people.

“I got really excited about the conspiracy that Disney collaborated with the CIA, and used a government programme, called MK ULTRA, to brainwash vulnerable children through the Disney club – Britney spears being their first big success,” Kay explains.

“Spears and now Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga – all sorts of pop starts – are under some kind of MK ULTRA control, the conspiracy theorists say. Through their music videos, they give all sorts of messages; they’re basically puppets. And when they have a breakdown, it’s them breaking free from their programming – in fact, Kanye West is going through something similar at the moment.”

“We’re living in this incredibly fluid moment when really no one is sure what society is for anymore. The old stories are dying. These new ones are floating around, but don’t make any sense” – Adam Curtis

People find these stories really compelling, despite not believing a word of it. Kay says, “There’s this really funny thing to me where people who didn’t know about the conspiracy theories say; right, that’ll be my whole weekend down YouTube and Wikipedia now.”

Contemporary dance has been experiencing a real surge in interest in recent years, Kay adds. And Curtis isn’t surprised to hear this. People want compelling stories told in dramatic ways, he argues. And that’s exactly what they’re trying to do. He elaborates: “I think what Rosie and I are trying to do is to say (that) we’re living in this incredibly fluid moment when really no one is sure what society is for anymore. The old stories are dying. These new ones are floating around, but don’t make any sense.”

This mixing of genres – experimental dance and popular documentary – is central to the appeal of the dance version of MK ULTRA, but it wasn’t without its challenges, both technical and conceptual. “You can see his video work in the dance show itself,” Kay explains. And working between the body and the projection demanded getting the balance right between the two. “The body can look really small when there’s a big video projection on screen – and it’s my job to make the performers really stand out.”

The truth of the conspiracies isn’t of interest to either of them. It’s the fact that we live in a moment when people do believe them, or at least, choose to. Curtis describes this as a “detaching” from politics, because people know the politicians, the economists, and the think tanks don’t know what’s going on – none of them has an alternative. So they put forth theories they know aren’t true because they’re a “much more entertaining and realistic alternative to the stuff that they’re told that they know is rubbish”.

“And what both I and Rosie wanted to make the piece about was to dramatise this, to bring it out, and the reason they believe all this is because they don’t believe what they’re told – but they sort of know it’s ridiculous. People are realising that those in power have no idea what’s going on.”

As part of the research for the piece, Kay visited a Britany Spears concert. “She was such a beautiful dancer when she was younger,” Kay tells me. Regardless of her technical ability, there was a real joy to how she moved. But this experience showed a darker side to the scale that fame provides. “Seeing her on stage in this huge arena – it just had such little meaning. I found it quite harrowing actually. And I thought; wow, the show MK ULTRA really is on the money. There’s a scene in (MK ULTRA) where the star is trying to escape but she can’t, she’s being passed around by the six other backing dancers but they’re kind of trapping her as well. I made it quite cold, quite eerie, with strange abstract music behind it. It really did feel like a Britany Spears concert.”

But what next for the Rosie Kay dance company?

“Dance itself is having big arguments about what it is exactly,” Kay says. But she’s excited to continue working on such research heavy, physically demanding pieces into the future. With the increased Arts Council support and growing recognition for their work, the dance company is touring more and has even been able to expand the team.

“Adam and I keep talking about what we’d do if we collaborated again – and he keeps saying; think more mainstream, think more mainstream. And I always say ‘no’. I don’t know. I like to be ahead of the curve. To figure out what the weirder cultural swings are going to be before they become mainstream. That’s what I like doing. If it’s not scaring the life out of people, it’s not interesting to me.”