The dance strand of the Manchester international festival kicked off with a blockbuster. Performed in a cavernous former railway depot, Invisible Cities features actors, dancers, digital animations and amazing stage designs. In adapting Italo Calvino’s novel of the same name, it aims for sweeping themes such as imagination, power, belonging, morality and mortality. “The question of whether this was one of my best ideas or an act of pure folly remains open,” writes director Leo Warner in the programme. My answer is that it’s both. Cued by the book, the piece is a hallucinatory string of scenes as Marco Polo (Matthew Leonhart) tells tales of fantastical cities to the emperor Kublai Khan (Danny Sapani). In a feat of production design, the stage – around which the audience, like compass points, is divided into four distinct phalanxes – morphs from throne room to temple, encampment to shopping mall, and even to a Venetian canal, complete with water, gondola and bridge. Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui animates these sets with the superb Rambert dancers. In one scene, handheld lights create galactic constellations; in another, the dancers clump together into chimerical demons with many heads and compound bodies. They use props ingeniously, arching laminated strips into vaulted domes, ambulating on stilts to suggest a caravan of camels, or stretching ribbons into a cat’s cradle, part connective network, part abstract geometry.
Add in panoramic digital animations of forests, seas, skies and skyscrapers, and there are marvels to behold. Yet as with many a blockbuster, the work often feels overwrought. One scene flies past another, the music by Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie – all swoons, thumps and thundering – seems designed for manipulative effect, and the story strains for significance, with intertitles announcing grandiloquent themes: language, questions, desire, health, despair. Ultimately, the piece founders on its central encounter between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Writer Lolita Chakrabarti doesn’t synthesise Calvino’s poetics with her own more character-driven drama, and the actors are left with loud, mystical declamations and mystifying motivations.
Invisible Cities certainly has a wow factor, not to mention epic ambitions that, towards the end, it nearly achieves. but it is also profligate with its own resources. Less overproduction might produce less wastage.
Over at the Great Northern Warehouse, the high-ambition but much lower-budget Alphabus is similar on several counts. This collaboration between local spoken-word artists and dancers from Manchester and New York is set in a former industrial site, has its audience on all sides, aspires towards cosmic significance and uses dance more to illustrate than generate its story. Again, there is a central encounter that is hard to track – here, a struggle between father and son over a fabled book of forbidden words.
Though its scenes are scattershot, many moments are effective on their own: a vocal face-off over arms that reach up as if from the underworld; a dancer keeling over from a precarious upside-down balance as the lights fade. Especially impressive are the flex dancers, arms twisting into pipe-cleaner positions, ankles angled to let them snake across the stage.
Yet it’s telling that the high point of the event is its encore. Liberated from the demands of acting and storytelling, the performers come to life through sound, rhythm and physicality. There’s clearly a lot of talent here, but Alphabus is not the best vehicle for it.