There are some shows that are such an “event” that it’s hard to separate the performance from everything else going on around it. The opening of Free Your Mind, a new creation from director Danny Boyle, dance company Boy Blue, designer Es Devlin and writer Sabrina Mahfouz, is also the launch of Aviva Studios, the £242m home of Factory International, the producers behind Manchester International festival. It’s the coolest party of the year.
The show is a 2023 take on the 1999 film The Matrix, which fits with the current 90s nostalgia (those skintight PVC trousers will take you right back) but is also alarmingly prescient in its story of humans being usurped by intelligent machines as we enable the march of AI, ever more in thrall to the algorithm.
It’s more than a movie rehash; this event is also a calling card for Manchester itself. So here’s Alan Turing describing the city’s part in mechanisation, and warning of its consequences. And it’s a showcase for the venue, comprising two parts, a stylish auditorium and the 21-metre-high hangar-like Warehouse space, thus like the show itself split into something conventionally theatrical and something far more novel and arresting.
Are the Matrix’s hero, Neo (Corey Owens), and his journey a bit lost among all this? Well, yes. With 50 dancers on stage, Free Your Mind is built from large-scale set pieces. Choreographer Kenrick “H2O” Sandy is a master at orchestrating tightly drilled ranks of battle-ready glitching bodies and short, sharp shocks of metrical movement. Although when Sandy himself appears as Morpheus, he reminds us one dancer is sometimes enough. A magisterial performer, he is molten and he is rock.
Sandy and composer Michael “Mikey J” Asante, whose score is perfectly attuned to the drama, worked with Boyle on the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, and at the start of the second half, once the audience has reassembled in the vast, white Warehouse space, Boyle basically does for Manchester what he did for Britain then: a fast-cut montage of cultural history, archive footage of terraces and millworkers, Ian Curtis and Tony Wilson, Granada TV (which used to be on this site). We land right now, in surreal scenes of big tech’s corporate takeover, a dancer emerging from a pile of Amazon parcels, a giant blue Twitter tick, a halo made from an Apple logo, designer Gareth Pugh adding ruched silver sleeves and space-age glamour to dancers strutting along the central catwalk. Devlin’s set has clever touches, recalling, in one example, the punch holes used to mechanise cotton weaving and make early computers. (The striking visuals are, of course, enabled by technology.)
We’re sleepwalking into ceding control to machines (and tech bros), they’re saying. At one point the dancers on stage are staring like zombies into the light of their phones while next to me a group of young men film the performance, on their phones. It’s not a dystopia, it’s just life now. There is a somewhat disjointed mix between the Matrix story and the wider narrative, and between the two halves of the show, but the second half especially is a fresh blast of spectacle as well as an urgent entreaty to wake up.
At Aviva Studios, Manchester, until 5 November