A ‘Matrix’-Inspired Spectacle, With Little to Challenge the Mind

There was a sense of momentous occasion on Wednesday at the opening of the new Aviva Studios performance space in Manchester, England. Political and cultural figures made sweeping declarations: This was Britain’s most significant cultural project since the Tate Modern opened in London over 20 years ago; the largest government investment in the arts since forever; the most important new theater space in Europe; and a generator of work, well-being and regeneration in Britain’s underserved north.

“It’s a big day not just for Manchester, but for the U.K.,” said Lucy Frazer, Britain’s culture secretary, at a news conference several hours before the opening performance of “Free Your Mind,” a large-scale spectacle directed by Danny Boyle that inaugurated the building.

The 144,000 square foot Aviva Studios (named for an insurance company that gave around 35 million pounds, or $43 million, to the project) is the new home of Factory International, the organization that produces the Manchester International Festival. The building was designed with multipurpose and multidisciplinary intent by Ellen van Loon from the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, the Dutch firm founded by Rem Koolhaas, costing “around £240 million,” or $290 million, according to a spokesman for the venue.

There is a conventional 1,600-seat theater (“the Hall”) and a 700-foot long, 226-foot high performance space (“the Warehouse”) that can accommodate 5,000 people. The spaces can be used individually, combined or divided to create several distinct, acoustically isolated performance areas.

The seats in the theater can be taken out for gigs; the floors can flood and drain; you could hang 100 cars from the ceiling of the Warehouse. “We want people to imagine seemingly impossible things,” said John McGrath, Factory International’s artistic director, during a tour of the building.

The massive 144,000 square foot space hopes to revitalize the arts scene in Manchester.Credit…Marco Cappelletti, via OMA and Factory International

Living up to these ambitions in an opening show is a tall order, even for Boyle, the Academy Award-winning film director (“Trainspotting,” “Slumdog Millionaire”) who masterminded the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. For “Free Your Mind,” he teamed up with the hip-hop choreographer Kenrick “H2O” Sandy, the composer Michael “Mikey J.” Asante, the designer Es Devlin and the writer Sabrina Mahfouz to create a show loosely based on the “Matrix” movies, with their prescient themes of artificial intelligence taking over human life.

At the news conference, Boyle talked about using “The Matrix” (directed by the Wachowski siblings) and its sequels as a widely available cultural reference, and “Free Your Mind” is mostly interesting as a statement of intent. It’s accessible, fun, visually spectacular and entirely unchallenging. But on the evidence of opening night, the show draws an impressively young, hip and diverse audience.

“Free Your Mind” opens in the Hall, with a lecture delivered via an old-fashioned television screen and new-fashioned technology by the mathematician Alan Turing, who developed an early vision of modern computing. There is a quick history of Manchester as the home of the machine, and a question asked early: “Should we be worried that machines could think?”

Dancers in trench coats appear, moving with robotic jerkiness and Neo (Corey Owens), the hero of “The Matrix,” emerges from the front row and is confronted by a dark-glasses-wearing, sinister group, before the scene changes to a cluster of faceless figures encased in stretchy white fabric that is attached to the ceiling. As they move in a circle, the tubes of fabric entwine like a maypole; visually arresting and oddly old-fashioned, reminiscent of the choreographer Alwin Nikolais’s experiments with form and fabric in the 1950s and 1960s.

The show begins with a monologue delivered by an avatar of the mathematician Alan Turing, which the visual effects company Union VFX created from a photograph.Credit…Tristram Kenton
The show’s movements are directed by the hip-hop choreographer Kenrick “H2O” Sandy.Credit…Tristram Kenton

These figures are presumably the humans whose energy is being harvested by an evil artificial intelligence: the truth revealed by the omniscient Morpheus to Neo in “The Matrix.” A series of episodes move us through a meeting between Neo and the female warrior Trinity (Nicey Belgrave), confrontations with the police and the machine Agents who guard the Matrix, and the trial of the first robot to kill a human.

Sandy’s movement language, drawn from hip-hop and street dance vocabularies, is boldly graphic, and he adeptly moves the 50-dancer cast in crisp, cascading formations, but there is little subtlety or variety either here or in Asante’s serviceable atmosphere-creating score. (The sound system, however, is fab, as is Lucy Carter’s lighting.) The only standout dance moment comes in part two, when Sandy himself, as Morpheus, performs a compelling solo of sweeping, martial arts-inflected motion, legs kicking high as his body arches backward.

In the intermission, Matrix-agent figures were suspended around the huge lobby and bar space (rather more effectively Matrix-y than anything onstage), and white rabbit-headed figures danced with audience members. (A reference to the message, “Follow the white rabbit,” that appears on Neo’s computer screen in the movie, but surely also to the Jefferson Airplane song, “White Rabbit,” with its lyrics about mind-bending pills.)

Part two, in the Warehouse, is more abstract, with Devlin’s spectacular set as the star: a huge cocoon of white Manchester cotton rounding out the angles of the space and enclosing the audience, mostly standing on each side of an enormous catwalk. Long narrow screens above this stage offer a montage of Manchester cultural history — footage of millworkers, British soap operas, references to pop bands like Joy Division — then show an incessant stream of images that blur into a kind of visual wallpaper as one scene after another plays out beneath.

The show’s sets are by the designer Es Devlin.Credit…Tristram Kenton
Part two of “Free Your Mind” plays out on an extended catwalk in a part of Aviva Studios called the Warehouse.Credit…Tristram Kenton

This section is presumably our present in which data, rather than energy, is being harvested from us humans. Amazon packages are delivered, Twitter ticks, the Apple logo and Google are referenced in Gareth Pugh’s costumes; dancers move while unable to take their eyes off their phones. Finally we get the battle between Neo and Smith, with a re-enactment of the famous bullet-stopping sequence in the original film, before a group finale to Asante’s portentous chords. The final image is of the screens, showing human figures effaced by vertical lines of code. (Oh dear.)

The audience, which clearly knew and loved “The Matrix,” didn’t seem depressed by that, and gave the show a rousing ovation. “Free Your Mind” is a good night out and a decent demonstration of the new building’s capacities, even if its muddled mix of pure-dance display and clumsy propositions don’t say much about what it means to be human. Something stranger and more genuinely boundary-pushing would have been a welcome opening salvo from the often-visionary minds at Factory International. Perhaps that’s next.

Free Your Mind

Through Nov. 5 at Aviva Studios, in Manchester, England;

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