A contemporary dance make-over of The Matrix, with Manchester thrown into the mix? It sounds mad, but that’s exactly what Danny Boyle, serial hit film-maker and 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony director, has delivered. Free Your Mind is a marathon of choreography and live effects with a cinematic soundtrack, currently playing at Aviva Studios, Manchester. The venue is operated by Factory International, who have already hosted this year’s Manchester International Festival there. Free Your Mind not only shows off the performance potential of both its two major stages, it leaves you reeling.
The first half of Free Your Mind is staged in Aviva Studios’ largest auditorium The Hall, with theatrical seating eccentrically upholstered in yellow. It begins with a huge 50s-style TV centre-stage showing Alan Turing, the British code-breaker and mathematician widely recognised as the ‘father of artificial intelligence’. He then appears as a character behind it, as dancers in brown lab coats sweep the stage under projected visuals of punch-card tape projected over them. We’re at the dawn of the computing age, when Manchester was home to the world’s first programmable computer, and to Turing himself. We’re soon transitioning to questions machine intelligence raises, as a curiously retro robot is put on trial for murder.
When the stage fills with dancers enveloped in white stocking tubes connected to something unseen above, it’s an analogy for being trapped in a digital web. This is the conceptual territory of The Matrix, and soon we’re able to recognise Matrix characters, such as bad-man-in-a-suit Agent Smith. Long coats as worn by the film hero Neo, and shiny black leather as worn by Trinity, make the good guys easy to identify. There’s a dreamy woman in red associated with goons dressed in black like cat burglars with sunglasses, echoing evil Matrix Agents. Naturally, they’re vanquishing in fight scenes, but there’s as much gestural posturing as action. The complex choreography by Kendrick ‘H2O’ Sandy is clearly descended from the work of legendary dance innovator Martha Graham, but more jerky and stop-start, like mime. The score by Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante is epic and doom-laden. While everyone on stage is silent, words in the new narrative developed by Sabrina Mahfouz are woven into the soundtrack. The first act closes with a huge basket swinging down across the theatre, spreading smoke like an Orthodox church ceremony, along with black confetti. After this crescendo of non-stop sensory overload, the interval a chance to come up for air.
As the audience mingles in the Studio bar (with its hints of the legendary Hacienda club), dressed-up white rabbits are directing it to Aviva Studios’ other great auditorium, The Warehouse, for the second act. A runway stage has been set up to bisect a long, white, organic space, and either side are not seats but standing room. It must have been a challenge for Es Devlin, the top-flight set designer, but she’s got an extraordinary light box with LED sides and packed with technical wizardry to play with. It’s really long, hanging above the entire length of the runway. Again, we start with something of Manchester, in snatches of sounds from the legendary local 80s label Factory Records (which Factory International’s name honours) and nostalgic images above the stage. Then everything gets dazzling and digital and the relentless Matrix cycle restarts. The character Morpheus is with us on stage, with appropriate gravitas. We hear soundtracked words of profundity. Again, there’s much confrontation. Neo and women in black plastic and red wigs (as many Blade Runner replicants as Trinity) take yet more waves of bad forces on. The sheer precision and athleticism of the 50-odd dancers is breath-taking. Of course, Morpheus and his band prevail.
Free Your Mind was made with the blessing of the Wachowski Sisters, who (when they were the Wachowski Brothers) created the three Matrix films. Morphing their concept of immersive enslavement by machine intelligence from film to stage produces a different sort of experience, but it can still be overwhelming — and exhausting. Free Your Mind sometimes feels like it’s on auto-repeat but with synthesised variations as if the whole thing was churned out by a generative AI like Chat GPT. Intentional or not, that could be precisely where Turing’s legacy is leading in all sorts of creative fields. But the show is ultimately about the triumph of humanity, and not least, the heaps of talent in the humans who made it. A visiting critic may have reservations, but a couple I talked to after said it was the best thing they’ve ever seen.
Free Your Mind – 5th November 2023, Aviva Studio, Manchester