x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Festival steeps Manchester in culture

The Manchester International Festival boasts the best in European contemporary art and a new storytelling event focusing on the UAE, Lebanon and Egypt.

The chamber music performance space, specially designed by Zaha Hadid Architects for the Manchester International Festival, where works by JS Bach will be played.
The chamber music performance space, specially designed by Zaha Hadid Architects for the Manchester International Festival, where works by JS Bach will be played.

Tomorrow sees the beginning of the Manchester International Festival (MIF), the second edition of an artist-led biennial festival conceived as a showcase for entirely new work. This year, as well as projects from Zaha Hadid, Rufus Wainwright, Neil Bartlett and the site-specific theatre group Punchdrunk, the festival will see the launch of a collaboration between the MIF and Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation.

ADMAF and MIF are launching a new partnership which will explore the art of storytelling from the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Egypt and the UK. This will start with a free storytelling event for local schools on July 8 and continue to develop both in Manchester and Abu Dhabi, coming to fruition at the 2011 edition of MIF. Included in the programme for the July event are Ghaya al Dhaheri, who currently works for the Authority for Culture and Heritage in Abu Dhabi, and Alia al Zougbi, an actor, storyteller, dancer and contemporary performer. The stories are intended to promote cross-cultural dialogue and will enable the students from Manchester to find out more about the histories, people and traditions of the Middle East.

Hoda al Khamis Kanoo, the founder of ADMAF, said: "ADMAF is delighted to be taking part in such an important and innovative public event as the Manchester International Festival, with our storytelling programme. We are proud to be able to share a special part of Emirati culture with a new audience, in an environment that fosters and encourages creative learning." With a wide-ranging programme of cutting-edge work from across the cultural spectrum, the festival will provoke, challenge and push boundaries. "The idea of a festival that consists entirely of world premieres is exciting," says the author and director Neil Bartlett, whose latest offering, Everybody Loves a Winner, transforms Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre into a working bingo hall.

"These days, the same list of shows seem to do the rounds on the international circuit, so that you have to look twice at the cover of the programme and wonder whether it's the Edinburgh Festival or the Brighton Festival," he says. "But for 18 days here in Manchester, there will be nothing but world premieres. Every single piece is a new adventure for the artist concerned." Among the festival's 20 world premieres are Prima Donna, Rufus Wainwright's debut opera; a double-bill performance by the pioneers of contemporary music Kraftwerk and Steve Reich; the immersive theatre of It Felt Like a Kiss, created by Adam Curtis and Punchdrunk, with music by the Blur frontman Damon Albarn; the world-leading ballet dancer Carlos Acosta; Jeremy Deller's uniquely Mancunian Procession, and international music featuring Antony & the Johnsons, Durutti Column and Elbow.

It is a festival that works to challenge expectations. A play at the Royal Exchange, created by the experimental artists Neil Bartlett, Simon Deacon and Struan Leslie, might be expected to draw one kind of audience, but the show, which is about bingo, has been advertised through Manchester bingo halls, targeting a different demographic altogether. At every turn, audiences are invited to consider and reconsider what they are seeing.

The festival is born out of a reciprocal relationship to place and is very much a product of the city. Manchester, with its history of industrialisation and forward-thinking social policy, remains a self-confident, united city, validated by its successes in the fields of music, theatre and the arts. Compared to the urban sprawl of London, Manchester feels compact and intimate yet retains a distinctly cosmopolitan quality.

"Manchester has long thrived on invention, innovation and radical thought, and MIF aspires to be part of that tradition," says the festival director Alex Poots. "We've tried to give our artists room to breathe, encouraging them to explore new ways of working within their fields and beyond." This artistic licence has enabled concepts to come to fruition that may otherwise have remained abstract. "I had been carrying the idea of this show around in my head for several years," says Bartlett of his latest theatrical offering. "I thought that no one would ever let me stage it because, in many ways, it is crazy. But the festival organisers said, 'That's fantastic, come and do it'. That kind of support reaps rewards."

Events and installations are held throughout the city and the unique properties of the location are utilised. For some artists, including Neil Bartlett, the impulse for the work was a direct response to a particular building or area. "The Royal Exchange Theatre offers a unique sense of intimate enclosure with the actors, a real sense that this is happening here and now," he says. "You literally have to say to the audience, could you move your feet please, because we have to get through there."

Festival highlights include work by the world-renowned pioneer of long-durational art and the former recipient of the Venice Biennale Golden Lion, Marina Abramovic. Entitled Marina Abramovic Presents…, the group work will feature 14 of the world's most innovative live artists installed in the Whitworth Art Gallery. The exhibition will unfold over four hours and will begin with an hour-long performance initiation for the audience with Abramovic.

"As our lives have become faster and faster, our attention span has become shorter and shorter," Abramovic says. "We dedicate a few minutes to something and then we run out of patience. We read a page of a book, but do not read until the end of the chapter. The attention of the audience is the main challenge in this work. It isn't about making a work of art longer. It is about educating the spectator and giving them the freedom to really look at something."

Zaha Hadid Architects has collaborated with the Manchester Art Gallery and three of the world's leading concert soloists to visually and acoustically transform one of the gallery exhibition spaces into an intimate chamber-music hall in which to hear the works of JS Bach. The aim is to create a near-perfect visual and sonic environment for the audience to experience some of the world's best-loved classical music. Across a series of nine concerts, the pianist Piotr Anderszewski, the cellist Jean Guihen Queyras and the violinist Alina Ibragimova will perform Bach's solo instrumental works for a small audience of 200 people at each performance. The new space will also be open to the public during usual gallery hours, and will be the venue for the ADMAF storytelling event.

"Bach's music is often performed in chamber halls for which it was not originally intended," says the architect Melodie Leung. "It was designed to be played in an intimate environment and setting. There is an architectural sense to how the music is structured and the intricacies with which he builds up the music. "From the moment that you walk into the gallery space, you are confronted with many different layers in the way that it is experienced. It is an installation that you can explore and one which has completely changed the original format of the gallery from an empty box into a dynamic, fluid environment. We have used a swirling ribbon to add to this layered quality. The nature of the small, temporary installation means that we have also been able to be more experimental. The ribbon will swoop down and envelop the stage and audience, exploring the notion of circulation. The audience should feel that the installation is wrapping itself around them in intricate ways and will shape their viewing depending on where they are located in the space."

The festival's organisers hope that the widest possible audience will be drawn to the events. "One of the really great things about the festival is that it makes no assumptions about what sort of person goes to see what sort of art," says Bartlett. "In times of crisis, people turn to artistic novelty to fill a void in their lives," says Abramovic. "The festival is designed to share these experiences with a broad audience. The public is ready to see something new; it has a renewed desire to go to theatres and galleries and see new work, not just here in Manchester but everywhere."

In Jeremy Deller's The Procession, the act of involving new audiences in contemporary art is taken to new levels. Featuring floats of boy racers, Happy Mondays fans, emo kids, former mill workers and Big Issue sellers, The Procession will travel through central Manchester on a busy afternoon. Showcasing peripheral and marginal figures - many of whom would have had little prior experience of contemporary art - Deller comments on the contribution such individuals make to the energy and vibrancy of Manchester. Significantly, The Procession will be witnessed by many people who may not even be aware of the festival's existence, opening up art to a whole new audience.

"The festival is a wonderful invitation to artists and those interested in art," says Bartlett. "There is a line in Everybody Loves a Winner which says, 'Come on everybody' and that is how I feel about this project. It's a chance for all kinds of people to get involved." www.mif.co.uk