Free Your Mind opens Aviva Studios in Manchester in style

Directed by Danny Boyle, this immersive hip hop dance extravaganza reworks the Matrix for contemporary times and provides a perfect opening ceremony to the new arts space

Reminiscing on his viewing of the first Matrix film in the late 90s, Danny Boyle admits he was “a bit baffled by it, to be honest”. And arguably, in narrative terms at least, his new reworking of the cult film series as an experimental dance piece is equally cryptic, but who cares really, because it looks and sounds incredible.

Boyle has worked alongside a dream team of British creative talent to create the live show, which is the official inaugural event at Aviva Studios in Manchester, after audiences were given an early view of some of the building this summer, via a blockbuster Yayoi Kusama exhibition.

The brief for the newly commissioned work was for it to “undo the locks of the building” and Free Your Mind duly takes place throughout Aviva Studios’ various cavernous spaces with Boyle, choreographer Kenrick ‘H2O’ Sandy, composer Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante, and stage designer Es Devlin putting together a dazzling show, featuring costumes by fashion designer Gareth Pugh and words by writer Sabrina Mahfouz. As an exercise in showing off the capabilities of the space alone, it’s an excellent showcase, demonstrating both the flexibility of the building and its acoustics.

All images © Tristram Kenton

As Asante puts it, the Matrix franchise has “become prophetic”, and its general message that we’re all living in a simulation controlled by machines has become part of the cultural lexicon, opening the way for this show, which uses dance and design to convey broad messages about how far technology has seeded its way into society, with Amazon, Facebook, selfies, CCTV, and warfare all making an appearance.

The show opens with mathematician and scientist Alan Turing giving a speech on a black-and white TV, (a scene which quickly turns into a dance piece), connecting his once futuristic ideas of computers and algorithms with the ‘Matrix’ of today. The Turing on the TV also alludes to his personal life, and the tragic outcomes of his story in this regard highlight how we must be equally aware of the dangers of humans as well as machines.

Turing also firmly links Free Your Mind to Manchester, a theme that runs throughout the show, with the second half opening with a break in the story to show a medley of imagery that is a pure celebration of the city. As Blue Monday plays in the background, we see footage of the cotton industry and Lowry paintings, before revving forward to the 80s and 90s glory years of Factory Records, the Haçienda, Granada TV, and the still much-missed ringmaster-in-chief, Tony Wilson.

The unsubtle message here is that that was the city’s creative past, but that Aviva Studios (and the Manchester International Festival, whose team is programming the space) will be its future. Much has been made of Aviva Studios’ spiralling costs and time scales (as well as the discomfort of its corporate moniker) but there was a palpable sense of joy and wonder in the air as audiences were given their first demonstration of what the new building can deliver – it did not disappoint.

Free Your Mind is at Aviva Studios in Manchester until November 5;