Unit 5 in the Great Northern Warehouse is something utterly unexpected. Despite the glitz of its surroundings, Unit 5 itself is dark, gloomy, and unpolished. A large stage with a long platform takes up most of the space, with smaller stages set up around the room.
Reggie ‘Regg Roc’ Gray – New York dancer and choreographer, who was also behind FlexN Manchester from MIF15 joins forces with ‘spoken-word powerhouse’ Young Identity, and dancers from both Manchester and New York is spectacular show of dance, poetry, and theatre in the world premiere of Alphabus.
There are no seats in the room, so the audience is right in the middle of the action. An actor appears on the centre stage dressed in a robe decorated with a simple infinity symbol on the back. The childish and slightly nerdy part of my brain is reminded of the Durmstrang students from the Harry Potter film series. But it lends an air of royalty and of power. The robes disappear and more players join in from the shadows.
They discuss origin stories and which ones to tell, settling on the story of Alphabus. The piece is supposedly drawn from many cultures and there’s a sense of tribalism already. Aside from a few minor pronunciation errors, they hold the crowd’s attention. Just as suddenly, the music and movement replace the dialogue and it’s a captivating performance. The dialogue returns, peppered with sounds from the ‘outside’ and of nature, the screens at either end of the room flicker and swirl with snippets of the spoken-word and related images. There is activity all around the room.
The room is hot and airless and the atmosphere is somewhat ominous, in turn giving the performance an ominous twist. The actors move among the crowd and the vibe changes constantly: one moment serious in the telling of a profound story, and the next moment it’s all high energy in the dance. And all of this happens as sharply as a flipped switch.
The story takes an interesting but dark turn with the implied subject of control of words and thoughts and censorship. Alphabus discovers a mysterious book containing all sorts of knowledge, and words that are new. And it goes against everything the tribe knows. He becomes a troubled young man as this knowledge changes him and he challenges the tribe leader. Instead of helping him, the leader banishes him. It’s all getting very George Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and very much Now.
Red lights flood the space, and the words gather pace and settle into a new pattern of a musical rhythm. Most of the actors writhe and claw from the gaps in the stage and the words become a battle. Just as suddenly, the words turn into a stream of consciousness, full of metaphor and simile.
The entire tribe is thrown into a state of upset and distress – reflected in the multiple flurries and flashes of movement, music, and lights. Pairs break off and battle once again with poetry and dancing. There’s very much an Us versus Them mentality taking shape now as the tribe rapidly become individual and different.
Alphabus appears to be about many things all at once, first, perhaps, the importance of ‘sticking together’ and safety in numbers. After all, isn’t one of the most basic modern human traits finding like-minded folk and banding together? Then, more obviously, control: control of thoughts, and words, and knowledge, and power. And depending on who has the control in the first place often dictates who has which, if anything at all. Tradition has its place, but when rote and tradition attempt to squash truth, change, creativity, and growth, that’s when things can get tricky, and more often than not, dangerous. One look around at the world we know today and it’s increasingly obvious we’re headed in that same dangerous direction.
“Was it you that woke, or did the world wake?” the cast of Alphabus ask? Perhaps it is time for both to happen all at once. If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that we – society, all of us – need to wake up and shake up the world.
Photo: Joel Fildes