Free Your Mind: An Introduction to Aviva Studios – review

Dancers on stage at Free Your Mind

Free Your Mind. Commissioned and produced by Factory International. (c) Tristram Kenton 25

One aspect of ‘The Matrix’ that gets overshadowed by its social commentary and razor-sharp action set pieces is its achievement in immersion.

Audiences in 1999 around the globe could well have been in two minds about whether to watch the Wachowskis’ masterpiece or stay at home with their Playstation (the video game industry would overtake Hollywood’s income in 2001, $9.4 billion to $8.35 billion). Though the idea of questioning reality dominated not only the film but the minds of many a head-scratching cinemagoer, nostalgia, clear visual references, fourth wall breaks and, crucially, first person perspective only seen in FPS games like Halo and Half-Life before the century’s end, not only alludes to the cultural preferences of consumers at the time but asks if the observer is part of the film.

Immersion is the selling point of Free Your Mind. Not only is it being marketed as “a large-scale immersive performance”, but the mix of stunning performances from local dancers and otherworldly visuals plant its onlookers in a masterfully designed, all-angles-covered environment where each movement hits like an electric shock. Shining lights onto audience members; cast members hiding in plain sight around the theatre; showering the viewers with confetti; maintaining its guise through expressive art installations during intervals… all this stretches the performance beyond the physical stage.

A view of the stage and audience at Free Your Mind

Free Your Mind. Commissioned and produced by Factory International © Daniel Devlin, October 2023

Choreographed by the acclaimed Kenrick ‘H2O’ Sandy, it’s the interplay between his volatile and unpredictable vision and composer Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante’s industrial, electronic, percussion-minded score that manifests the show’s magic. Storytelling is hard enough to do with the hundreds of thousands of words at our disposal – achieving it exclusively through dance is a miracle. The combination of the Matrix and hip-hop choreography may raise an eyebrow or two but it’s a testament to the hive mind of the creative team as well as the commitment and full-throttle energy from its dancers that the pairing makes complete sense.  

There is no better, more apt, more relevant a show than Free Your Mind for the inauguration of Aviva Studios, new home of Factory International (who are responsible for Manchester International Festival). Developed to be an elite, world-leading venue to let the creatives of Manchester thrive, Free Your Mind couldn’t have been a more experimental and well-executed demonstration of the site’s potential if it tried. At the forefront of this was its venture into the ‘Warehouse’ for its second half: an all-encompassing and ultra-flexible chameleon of an auditorium capable of reconfiguring into any floor plan you require (thanks in part to its technical grid). What made it so captivating was not only the vast swathes of white fabric contrasting the technicoloured error messages and hyper-stylised glitch art, but rather the seating arrangement. Having a catwalk for a stage meant that the audience needed to be separated in two halves. Being in the audience’s line of sight effectively raised many questions about perspective. Not least: are we part of the performance? Are we part of the narrative?

Performers and lighting on stage at Free Your Mind

Free Your Mind. Commissioned and produced by Factory International. (c) Tristram Kenton

Reinterpreting the question of red pill or blue pill to one of co-operation with AI or disregard for its so far unseen but potential consequences shifts the story into the current day. Though the bullet dodging, wire worked fight sequences and Agent Smith interrogations all make appearances (recreated with true ingenuity and precision), big corporations and the all-seeing eye of the media physically loom over the performers on a futuristic, raisable screen. In a considered and optimistic approach, Free Your Mind sees artificial intelligence as an ally significantly more than its source material. It’s an uplifting introduction to the venue, one that doesn’t fear an android dystopia but one that wants to get the most out of technology to raise up new artistic voices. 

Gareth Pugh’s costume design is bold, visceral and humorous, unafraid to dip into the leather-clad DNA of the films but strikingly prescient. No one will forget the sentient Amazon parcel – yes that really happened – fanning itself with smaller A4 packages. Neither will they forget his reinterpretation of Trinity, whose angular, patent leather trench coat and strawberry-lace tinted hair stood her out from the crowd. Or the searching, fleshy branches of humans still plugged into the matrix that made for a visually arresting moment of interweaving fluidity.

Dancers perform on stage in Free Your Mind

Free Your Mind. Commissioned and produced by Factory International. (c) Tristram Kenton 6

Aviva Studios is brimming with opportunity. With astonishing versatility, the area in which to perform becomes limitless: the aforementioned 5,000-seater ‘Warehouse’ is positioned next to the 1,600-seater ‘Hall’. Either one can facilitate art exhibitions, theatre shows, music concerts and transform to whatever configuration you so wish. Both spaces can be used simultaneously given the immense audio isolation from the two ‘Multiwall’ partitions, which, when removed, can combine both ‘Warehouse’ and ‘Hall’ areas into an exciting, much deeper stage.

“Giving the keys of the building to the city of Manchester” (a phrase that seems to be the show’s de facto mission statement) certainly has an air of corporate buzzword about it, however it’s impossible to deny that at the heart of Free Your Mind is community. Whether that’s within the cast, the venue staff or further yet to the people of Manchester and across the whole UK, the Aviva Studios project is aiming to be a cultural catalyst with the venue ushering in 1,500 direct and indirect job opportunities, projecting a £1.1 billion boost to the economy and implementing schemes to empower and equip young creatives (Artist Takeover, Factory Fellowship and Factory Sounds).

A view of Aviva Studios from across the canal

Aviva Studios, the new home of Factory International in Manchester. Photo by Marco Cappelletti. Courtesy of OMA and Factory International

It’s so inspiring to see artists taken under the wings of industry heavyweights. Kenrick summed it up perfectly at Wednesday morning’s press conference saying: “…[We’re] trying to push [the dancers] into this entrepreneurship, what now, what’s next, how are you using this show to push your brand, to push you as an artist?…”. His recurring mention of ‘servitude’ felt rather profound. Not only was this a descriptor of the artists towards their seniors but of the seniors learning from their students and how “…refreshing…” and “…honourable…” the process has been. 

A once bare and overlooked area of Manchester will soon become a hub of diverse, inventive, boundary-pushing artistry. It’s the easiest sell that John McGrath (Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Factory International) has had to make – “…we’ve got visual artists from around the world…queuing up to work in the space…”. London’s creative pedigree cannot be understated, however OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) and lead architect Ellen van Loon have tilted the scales towards the north. Fingers crossed their one-of-a-kind, global-leading cultural landmark will pave the way for and wholeheartedly support a new golden generation of Mancunian art, music, dance and theatre.


Free Your Mind runs until 5th November – book your tickets here.