Why the Manchester International Festival is a major player on the global arts scene

PUBLISHED: 00:00 30 June 2015

FKA twigs: movie magic from the singer-songwriter, producer and dancer Photo Dominic Sheldon

FKA twigs: movie magic from the singer-songwriter, producer and dancer Photo Dominic Sheldon

Dominic Sheldon

When New York casts an envious eye at this month’s Manchester International Festival, you know you’ve something special on your hands, writes David Upton

Alex Poots: the Manchester festival director heading to New York Photo Jonny DonovanAlex Poots: the Manchester festival director heading to New York Photo Jonny Donovan

The appeal of individual performers, or indeed performances, during Manchester’s International Festival this summer may be very much a matter of your personal taste, but no-one could deny that taken as a whole it represents a world-class line-up of original work.

What’s more, it fully underlines the city’s credentials as an international cultural centre. When the influential New Yorker magazine says Manchester hosts “probably the most radical and important arts festival today” then it suggests the world is sitting up and taking notice. Maybe that’s why the Big Apple has lured MIF director Alex Poots to become chief executive and artistic director of Culture Shed, a centre for artistic innovation in the US due to open in 2018.

But before that new challenge beckons this quietly-persuasive Scot, whose cultural contacts book would be worth a fortune on the black market, describes his time at Manchester’s helm as the 10 best years of his professional life. In that time he’s staged five festivals.

Highlights to date include 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen’s commemoration of fallen British soldiers, Queen and Country; Damon Albarn, Jamie Hewlett and Chen Shi-Zheng’s Chinese opera Monkey: Journey to the West; Björk’s three-week Biophilia residency; director Robert Wilson’s The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, starring Abramović, Willem Dafoe and Antony, from Antony and the Johnsons; and Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth.

Gerhard Richter and Arvo Pärt: a star pairing of international artistes Photo Alex PootsGerhard Richter and Arvo Pärt: a star pairing of international artistes Photo Alex Poots

It’s notable that Albarn, Björk and Antony are back for more of the same this year. From July 2-19 you can also pick and mix – probably according to your age – from Gerhard Richter, Arvo Pärt, Ed Atkins, FKA twigs, Douglas Gordon, Hélène Grimaud, Charlotte Rampling, Nico Muhly, Paris Opera Ballet, Wayne McGregor, Olafur Eliasson, Jamie xx, Maxine Peake, Justin Fletcher, Arca, Invisible Dot Ltd, Rufus Norris and Moira Buffini.

Score 18 out of 18 on knowing all those names and you’re a high-flying culture vulture indeed.

Even festival director Poots accepts that many may not be household names but he remains particularly proud of this year’s pairing of Richter and Pärt, a project several years in the making that teams leading modern artist Gerhard Richter with top composer Arvo Pärt. Both have made work inspired by and dedicated to each other, and these will be united for the first time at the recently re-opened Whitworth art gallery. Manchester Camerata will also perform an evening of Pärt’s music at the Bridgewater Hall.

At the same venue, Mark Simpson, one of Britain’s brightest young composers, presents the world premiere of his first large-scale commission, The Immortal, performed by the BBC Philharmonic.

FlexN: Brooklyn-based dance pioneers in a tie-up with Manchester performers Photo Anthony CrookFlexN: Brooklyn-based dance pioneers in a tie-up with Manchester performers Photo Anthony Crook

Neck of the Woods sees Turner Prize-winning artist Douglas Gordon and celebrated pianist Hélène Grimaud create a portrait of the wolf in a collision of visual art, music and theatre onstage at new arts centre Home, with Charlotte Rampling as the raconteur.

Singer-songwriter, producer and dancer FKA twigs will be making her MIF debut with a residency at the Old Granada Studios, Soundtrack 7, creating seven short films over the week, with audiences invited to watch the process. (By 2019 it is hoped that the studios site will have been transformed into a £78m venue, The Factory, that will become the main base for future festival events.)

Maxine Peake and Sarah Frankcom return with The Skriker at The Royal Exchange Theatre, a landmark revival of Caryl Churchill’s clash of ancient fairy story and portrait of a fractured England.

Choreographer Wayne McGregor is creating Tree of Codes, a contemporary ballet for soloists and dancers from The Paris Opera Ballet alongside his own Company Wayne McGregor. Their surrounds will be created by visual artist Olafur Eliasson to a score composed by Mercury Prize-winning producer/composer Jamie xx.

Wonder.land is a new musical inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland, with music by Damon Albarn and book and lyrics by Moira Buffini. This co-production with the National Theatre will be directed by its new artistic director Rufus Norris and will become the NT’s Christmas production in London.

Four years on from her groundbreaking Biophilia residency, Björk returns to MIF for a spectacular one-off gig at Manchester’s Castlefield Arena. A tenth of her audience on the night will have paid just £12 for their ticket. In common with all of the festival’s paid-for events, 10 per cent of tickets will be at the reduced price of £12 to Greater Manchester residents on or below the living wage.

FlexN Manchester sees Brooklyn-based Flex dance pioneer Reggie ‘Roc’ Gray and a specially assembled team of dancers making their European debut. This trans-Atlantic collaboration will unite the best of street dance performers from Brooklyn and Manchester.

Elsewhere, CBeebies’ Justin Fletcher will bring The Tale of Mr Tumble to Manchester’s Opera House; comedy innovators The Invisible Dot Ltd present a three-part programme of original works in MIF’s own Pavilion Theatre in Albert Square; and award-winning radio host and tech guru Adam Buxton premieres his latest material. Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, said: ‘Over the past decade, MIF has helped cement Manchester’s position as a major player on the global arts scene, while attracting tens of thousands of visitors from around the world, providing an important economic boost to the city, and inspiring members of our communities to get involved in the arts.

‘The calibre of internationally renowned artists, musicians and performers announced for this summer’s event demonstrates that MIF is continuing to break new ground and will continue to showcase Manchester as a vibrant centre of innovation and creativity.’

* For tickets and more information, go to mif.co.uk or follow @MIFestival.

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