adam curtis is making an illuminati-themed entrance into the dance world
The filmmaker's new dance project — a collaboration with Rosie Kay — imagines Britney Spears and Beyoncé under the influence of the CIA.
Photography Brian Slater
“To be completely truthful, I know absolutely nothing about dance,” Adam Curtis openly admits. The BAFTA-winning filmmaker is famous for his socio-political collages but for the past year and a half, he has turned his attention to making a contemporary dance piece called MKUltra. A collaboration with award-winning choreographer Rosie Kay and her eponymous Birmingham-based dance company, MKUltra is the third part of a dance trilogy which focuses on propaganda, surveillance and war. “I spend my time making films in which I tell people with my voice and with pictures what I think,” Adam explains to i-D. “It’s quite useful to do something where you’re not allowed to use your voice, where you’re exploring ideas through human experience and through the body.”
MKUltra takes its name from a CIA mind control program that Adam Curtis has been researching since the 90s, it was series of controversial, and at times illegal, experiments on humans designed and carried out by the CIA between 1953 and 1973. Rolled out across 80 research institutions from universities to prisons, Project MKUltra sought to manipulate subject’s mental states through the use of drugs, hypnosis, isolation, sensory deprivation and abuse, which extended to the sexual mistreatment of children. In 1973, triggered by Watergate, then CIA director Richard Helms gave an order for all MKUltra files be destroyed, making subsequent investigation of the project impossible, and eternally solidifying the mystery surrounding it.
But Curtis and Kay’s dance collaboration MKUltra explores a more contemporary mystery too. A shadowy group which conspiracy theorists claim is seeking to create a “New World Order” and with it, a totalitarian world government: the Illuminati.
The original, historical Illuminati was a secret society formed in 18th Century Bavaria with the intention of limiting the Church’s influence in sectarian life and disbanded in the late 1780s. The legend that surrounded them was revived first by the 60s counterculture and then, in the 90s, was released from the clutches of a few conspiracists and rolled out to a mass global audience via a tangled web of internet forums, YouTube videos and memes.
According to 2018’s internet-dwelling conspiracists, triangles, pentagrams, devil horns, thrones, smashed glass and the all-seeing eye -- alleged symbols of the Illuminati -- are actually all around us and hidden in plain sight in the music videos, set design and costumes of Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Beyonce, Jay-Z and Rihanna.
This is the landscape that Rosie Kay and Adam Curtis explore in MKUltra, a production which relies on seven dancers wearing catsuits designed by Gary Card (the designer who made Lady Gaga a latex bone mask for her Monster Tour), a “gold mirrored stage” and projections by Louis Price, and a trap-heavy score by composer and sound artist Annie Mahtani to tell the story of female dancers who compete to be the “chosen one”.
“The story behind MKUltra is this conspiracy is that all major pop stars have been brainwashed by the CIA, the Illuminati and Walt Disney and turned into robots,” Curtis explains, with Kay adding that “each of the females represent a different pop icon.
"You have the ingénue, K-pop type girl; you have a slightly more desperate, very driven Ariana Grande type; you have a sassy and sexy, more adult female; and then you have the star, who is definitely based around Britney," she continues. "The second half of the show asks whether she’s been brainwashed and manipulated by the other dancers, or by us -- are we partially responsible for the way we build people up and tear them down?”
Having been introduced to each other by Luke Jennings, the author of Codename Villanelle (the thriller novel on which Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Killing Eve was based), because of their mutual interest in conspiracy theories, Curtis and Kay found a synergy between their working processes. As well as a choreographer, Rosie is a research associate to the University of Oxford School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, and is known for her deeply scholarly approach to dance, while Curtis’ journalistic background approaches his films with a similar rigour. “She’s just like a journalist, she likes going out there and finding stuff out, and then trying to work out what the story is and what it means.” Curtis explains. “Rosie is interested in explaining the world to you in a new and imaginative way, and I think she’s really, really brilliant at it. I’ve helped her a lot with the film and tried to set it into some sort of context to explain that we do live in a world where people believe in the most weird conspiracies and to try and dramatise that. I’ve helped her try to put it into a context, put it into a frame.”
Rosie Kay originally conceived of MKUltra a year and a half ago. Since then, as Curtis is keen to point out, public mood has shifted. “Polite society,” as Curtis terms readers of the Guardian and the Observer, has started to see conspiracy all around them. “Rosie was way ahead of her time, because if you look at it now, everyone believes in conspiracies,” Curtis expands. “There isn’t anyone who doesn’t believe in conspiracies: we believe that Brexit was bought by dirty money at the moment -- that’s the latest conspiracy. So Rosie really was ahead of her time.”
Fake news is clearly dangerous in the hands of politicians, but as Adam Curtis aptly points out, certain kinds of fiction are more fun than fact, and lack the potency. “The conspiracies that people believe in online are much more fun and imaginative than the conspiracies that the middle class technocrats and the think thank people and the politicians give us at the moment,” he argues. “Believing that Britney Spears is controlled by the Illuminati does not lead to the killings of hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq, so I prefer that kind of conspiracy.”
Despite the complexity of the themes which drew them together, the creators of MK Ultra do not take themselves too seriously, instead revelling in the absurdity which comes with conspiracy theory and a genuine shared fascination with popular culture and what Curtis respectfully terms “trash pop music.” So what is next for the duo? “I told her that I would like to do a big musical,” Adam Curtis laughs. “We’ll see.”