This year’s Manchester international festival opened with an ambitious new dance piece, Sea Change, that united Deansgate in a celebration of togetherness after many months of Covid-19 restrictions.
The piece saw a line of dancers across a roughly 400m stretch of the street, which runs north-south through Manchester city centre, each performing unique gestures to create a living flipbook as the audience walked past.
The work is the brainchild of French choreographer Boris Charmatz. Describing Sea Change as a “mad dance” he said: “It’s not a chorus line at all. People really have the chance to express what’s in their gut even if that’s funny, awkward movements.
“We thought for the reopening, it would be great to do something for Mancunians and the city. The whole piece is about our shared need to be together and how now is the time to party after the confinement of lockdown. If we’d done the same piece three or four years ago, the smell would have been completely different and that makes the piece very special.”
Sea Change features more than 150 Greater Manchester residents among the cast, which includes a mix of professional dancers and “community performers”, amateur volunteers drawn from the area.
Emily Paris, 25, a professional dancer from Manchester, said that in the lead-up to the reopening there was “no segregation between professionals and amateurs. Boris has pushed us to our own personal limits and, as much as the outcome is stunning, we’re all so proud to be part of something with this level of community spirit.”
Ambient music blared from roadside speakers, further adding to the carnival atmosphere. The performance ran continuously for three hours in total, but the audience can view a complete cycle in 5-10 minutes.
“The description online was very conceptual and it’s been a lot to absorb,” said Alex Hancock, a distribution manager from Old Trafford. “I’m glad I took the plunge though … it’s surreal to be out like this after a year without the arts.”
Museum worker Emma McBeath, 47, said it was one of the first times she’d been out on account of having to shield for much of the last 16 months.
“One of my friends is a volunteer performer in the show. We used to go out clubbing all the time, so when we heard they were dancing in a big, public event we had to see it!” she said.
Aside from Sea Change, the festival features a number of newly commissioned works including Big Ben Lying Down With Political Books by the artist Marta Minujín, a 42m structure made from 20,000 books which are being given away at the end of the festival. The work comes “as a response to some of the battles between north and south over the last year,” said festival director John McGrath. “Manchester has a rich history, from the Peterloo massacre and the founding of the Guardian to the music industry of the last few decades, and it’s really important that the north maintains a strong cultural voice.”
The visual and performing arts festival features artists from the north-west and from more than 20 countries. “MIF isn’t inward looking, and that’s why we’ve invited artists from around the world to be part of our celebration,” said McGrath.