Alice, Dum and Dee in the musical ‘wonder.land’, which is showing at this year’s festival
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Few cultural events worldwide have established themselves with such clarity and self-confidence as the Manchester International Festival. Founded just eight years ago, it has quickly taught audiences to expect the unexpected. They don’t quite know what they will find during the biennial fortnight of brand new commissions, other than improbable collaborations and a fiery sense of ambition.

In an age in which the artistic avant-garde has been tamed, packaged and commodified to near-extinction, the MIF makes a striking statement. Yes, there are new directions for culture to take. But artists need to be helped along the way. They require support, and guidance. Most of all, they need to talk to, and work with, each other.

If the fraught imagination of the lonely artistic genius was the paradigm of much of the art of the past 100 years, the new millennium champions a new kind of art-making; one that depends on synergy and spontaneity and that requires artists to wander far from their cultural comfort zones, and into the unknown.

In this year’s festival, Tree of Codes, billed as a “contemporary ballet”, makes the point thrillingly. Devised jointly by choreographer Wayne McGregor, visual artist Olafur Eliasson and pop composer Jamie xx, and inspired by the eponymous novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, the project possessed all the potential to be an ill-considered hotchpotch.

But that is not the Manchester way. Like many of the festival’s projects, such as 2007’s Chinese opera Monkey: Journey to the West or 2011’s The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, Tree of Codes feels both pioneering in spirit and fully-formed. The dialogue between the show’s three creators is palpably and mutually constructive. Each art form inspires the other. And one more small thing: the weekend performance I attended was rapturously received by the public.

“It’s very hard to make a good work of art,” says the festival director Alex Poots over a busy breakfast during opening weekend. He makes the point purposefully, not out of resignation. Poots is leaving his job at the end of the month to take charge of the Culture Shed, a new arts centre scheduled to open in 2019 in New York.

But right now he is buzzing about his final festival, and Tree of Codes in particular. “A friend told me he thought it would be played in 50 years’ time,” he says, not without pride. “And then he said a very wise thing: that there was no controversy in it. That was very smart. Because you have these pieces, like The Rite of Spring, that break everything. This doesn’t break anything, it is just this joyous, harmonious synthesis of dance and music and the visual arts.”

He pays lavish compliments to the artists: McGregor, “who has this youthful curiosity and sense of wonderment”; Eliasson, a former street dancer, “who kept wanting to tell the dancers what to do in rehearsal”, and Jamie xx [founding member of The xx], “a 26-year-old who managed to produce something of such structure and artistry”.

The key to obtaining the right alchemical reaction, says Poots, was “that they all trusted each other so much. What I adored about the piece is that they were all so generous”.

The festival was devised in 2007 in an attempt, says Poots, to effect civic revival in a “post-industrial city that had reached rock bottom in the 1970s, and was wondering how you could ever get out of that”. Proper attention was given to Manchester in the wake of the 1996 IRA bombing, the largest in peacetime Britain up to that point, which had devastated the city centre.

“There were the Commonwealth Games [in 2002], which showed that Manchester could create a large-scale cultural event properly and successfully, and, in the private sector, the legacy of Factory Records, which showed that it could also do things differently.”

Poots, who worked as a student at Factory, put in a call to the label’s director and chief designer Peter Saville when he was approached for the festival job. “He told me that, as the first industrial city, Manchester was also the original modern city. And those two words were so illuminating, something just went off in my head.”

Björk performing last weekend

He clicks his fingers. “If the city was going to be faithful to its own history, this had to be a festival of original, new work, and it should not be something only for artists and audiences who came from what are traditionally regarded as the ‘high’ arts. It should include great artists from all styles.”

I ask if the boldness of that mission made him view his first commissions with trepidation. “But it is where things happen — in the spaces between things.” Poots had written a university dissertation on Miles Davis, concentrating in particular on what he thought was the influence of gamelan music on one of Davis’s landmark albums, 1969’s In a Silent Way.

Close study of the album, which also contained elements from Debussy, rock and Davis’s own bebop origins, taught Poots how to find the spaces between things. “Those great moments don’t happen when people are brought together in some frivolous, excitable way,” he says sternly. “They happen when you see an artist who is trying to develop an art form, and you look everywhere to find the right people to help them do it.”

Monkey, the highlight of Poots’s first festival, brought together Blur frontman Damon Albarn, his Gorillaz collaborator Jamie Hewlett, and the Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng to create a piece which would travel to the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris and London’s Royal Opera House. It was an ambitious beginning, I say to Poots.

“I talked to Chen about the piece, and it was clear to me that we had to find someone who could embrace the spirit of the story. I had seen Damon working with musicians in Mali, and he completely got it. I thought they should meet. To the outside world it may look like colliding elements. But if you can get those collaborations right, then bang! You get something explosive. There was a logic behind it, and it was entirely artistically driven.”

Albarn would become an MIF regular, returning in 2011 with Dr Dee, and this year with wonder.land, a musical update of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, made with Moira Buffini and Rufus Norris. Artists return, says Poots, because they find something in their collaborations that they want to pursue further. “You want to continue your journey, and make the next project even better.”

Festival director Alex Poots

Asked to identify a project that had a telling impact, Poots chooses without hesitation Steve McQueen’s 2007 art work Queen and Country, which consisted of a series of sheets of stamps, each sheet commemorating a British soldier lost in Iraq since 2003. “It was such a raw subject. There were fears, which I felt to be unfounded, that we were invading private lives. In fact, we wrote to all the families, and the only way that images were included were if they were willingly sent to us by the family, so that there was no confusion.”

However, at the last minute the gallery in which McQueen’s piece was supposed to have been displayed pulled out. “I felt completely devastated,” Poots recalls. “I was heartbroken, and very worried. So I went for a walk to console myself, and into the central library. And I read this thing — something like ‘Get thee knowledge, and with thy knowledge get thee understanding’ — and I rang Steve, and I said, ‘I think I’ve got a better space.’ Because it was in a temple of knowledge, and suddenly the piece became a comment on society.”

“Now that wasn’t a collaboration, because it was very much one artist, working very precisely. But I think Steve would be the first to say we walked with him every step of that difficult way. It was a communion more than a collaboration.”

To July 19, mif.co.uk

Photographs: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg; Carsten Windhorst; Tristram Kenton; Jonny Donovan

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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