MIF 2023: R.O.S.E by Ben UFO, Sharon Eyal, Gai Behar & YOUNG – review
2023 feels like it might be the most important year yet for the Manchester International Festival (MIF).
They’ve had to navigate a complicated rebrand, which included renaming their over-budget, £210.8m venue Aviva Studios, FKA the Factory. The venue is close to opening after four years of delays (MIF 2023 has been pitched as the ‘trial run’ before the venue officially launches later this year). The last instalment in 2021 wasn’t quite free of the pandemic’s limitations, making this their proper return event. Neighbouring cities Leeds and Liverpool host cultural projects of rival size in 2023. And of course, the economy is squeezing consumers, making it harder for people to spend money on the arts.
But the programming has been exceptional, covering installations, photography exhibitions, live music crossovers and everything in between. The new space has shown its promise, whilst gushing reviews of artworks and performances flood in. MIF 2023 it seems has landed just as it needed to.
Wrapping this year’s festival up is R.O.S.E, an event combining music and dance in a set of immersive shows. A collaboration between esteemed Israeli dance directors Sharon Eyal & Gai Behar, with British DJ legend Ben UFO, and London-based label YOUNG, it’s a great example of the multi-national, multi-art pieces that only something like MIF could make happen.
The show is pretty much as it’s pitched. A rave takes place in New Century Hall, whilst contemporary dancers choreographed by Eyal move around the room, with Ben UFO on the decks. It’s a simple concept, but delivered with such style and mastery that it transcends anything you could imagine a dance show or a DJ set achieving by itself.
After some mood-setting in pitch black, the show gets underway with Eyal’s dancers entering the hall under some focused lighting. They creep around, claiming the space and the audience’s attention as their own. They gyrate and contort, as a cohort and with their own individual motions, in time with the music and in ways that look unnatural, sometimes painful. Wearing gory eye-makeup and lacey gothic unitards, they resemble a set of sleep paralysis demons too unsettling to ignore, too mesmerising to turn away from.
Meanwhile, the ever-sweet Ben UFO plays lower tempo techno and Burial-esque bass music, including songs produced by YOUNG exclusively for these shows, to build the intensity bit by bit, for both Eyal’s choreographed dancers and the public who fill the room.
The dancers perform for about twenty minutes, before departing and letting Ben DJ alone for a similar length of time. Whenever the dancers re-join, they perform in different numbers and under different lighting tones, adding more dramatic movement to their routine. When they leave, Ben plays more club-ready music to bring the rave atmosphere back, picking heavier and heavier tunes. Both Ben and Eyal are controlling the motion of the room: they create a euphoric rave one minute, then totally absorb the same crowd with Eyal’s dark choreography the next, showing the power dance can have over the audience’s bodies when used in these different ways.
Creative director Low Kee Hong explains to me before the show that Ben has played different music each night. The dancers have been choreographed, but are responding to what their hearing, and of course move through a new room of people every time.
Art is at its best when it operates in this unknown space, slightly beyond the realm of preparation. Not only is R.O.S.E challenging how we experience DJ sets or contemporary dance shows, but it is also pushing its performers, testing their talents and ability to make something reactively, together. Ben is feeding off the crowd; the dancers are responding to his music; the technicians are keeping the sound and lighting aligned. Everyone is collaborating and creating as they go.
The outcome is a piece of work that shifts with each performance, made special by the nuances brought in by artists at the height of their skill. Ben UFO has since described it succinctly on his Instagram: “it is chaotic and unpredictable and beautiful.”
It’s a performance that relies on the trust and respect of its audience, which makes it perfect for Manchester. The crowd of student clubbers, heritage ravers and dance lovers give the performers plenty of space, and cheer louder and louder with each routine or successful mix. They end up with a climax of everyone bouncing ferociously to the final selection – the explosive, snare-y BAD GIRLS by Surusinghe. It is the moment that the performing dancers and the crowd, who have played different roles all evening, finally fall into harmony and move together in the middle of the room. It’s the crowd’s reward for joining the journey, a result of a 3-hour crescendo that’s subtly brought artist and audience closer and closer together.
R.O.S.E represents the best of MIF. Ambitious programming that makes complete sense once it’s been produced. Artforms intersecting to reveal their hidden depths and expand their respective audiences. Something multi-sensory and emotional; something innovative. And something that the people of Manchester can go mad for.
Ultimately R.O.S.E is one of those special pieces that leaves you feeling differently about things. You might reflect on the power of dance, which can make a packed room of people move together with joy, then have them frozen in suspense the next second. Perhaps you’ll listen to bass and techno music differently, or imagine the potential for more DJ set / contemporary dance crossovers.
At the very least, you should be more confident than ever in the MIF’s ability to put on exceptional work, and be glad this is not the just end of another festival – rather, the beginning of their next journey.
Head to Factory International’s website for more MIF events and news!