Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Guest post – Siobhán Kane at Manchester International Festival

Bjork, ballet and a miner turned glam rock wrestler were just some of the highlights found by Siobhán Kane at this year’s Manchester International Festival

South Wales miner turned glam rock wrestler Adrian Street

Tue, Jul 14, 2015, 09:30


The Manchester International Festival is a biennial showcase of original new and collaborative work which has been running since 2007. In that time, the festival under the stewardship of Alex Poots, who leaves this year to take over Culture Shed in New York, has hosted such work as Rufus Wainwright’s debut opera Everybody Loves a Winner, Björk’s Biophilia residency and a collaboration between documentary-maker Adam Curtis and Massive Attack. It’s what the New Yorker calls “probably the most radical and important arts festival today”.

I’ve been coming here since its inception and have seen some great work and enjoyed how the festival has grown sympathetically in tandem with the city’s growth in the ever-burgeoning Northern Quarter and a brilliant new arts centre HOME. Last year, Manchester City Council announced £78 million in funding for a new space, due to be completed in 2019, in the old Granada Television Studios to be called The Factory, riffing on both Manchester’s industrial past and its musical one in Factory Records.

This year’s festival has lots of intriguing commissions, including a residency from FKA Twigs, a collaboration between Arvo Pärt and Gerhard Richter and Charlotte Rampling performing in Neck of the Woods, a project from Turner prize-winning artist Douglas Gordon and pianist and “wolf conservationist” Hélène Grimaud.

My first stop was the Palace Theatre to see the musical wonder.land. It’s Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini and Rufus Norris’ take on Alice in Wonderland on the 150th anniversary of the book, which is really a meditation on a young person trying to find their place in the world done here through online gaming. Visually and thematically, it’s interesting, with projections by 59 Productions and set design by Rae Smith. The cast worked well, particularly Anna Francolini as headteacher Ms. Manxome in her Queen of Hearts-Cruella de Vil-Lillith Crane turn, her insecurities cleverly matched with those of Aly the teenager. The music seems partly tethered to older musicals such as West Side Story and Oliver (Paul Hilton is a Fagin-meets-Carnaby Street rocker), yet it dips in and out of quality, with the production suffering from too many moving parts.

The next day, it’s time for some comedy and London venue and production company The Invisible Dot have programmed events at the Pavilion Theatre. Adam Buxton in his guise as Dr. Buckles presents a new work in progress very much in the vein of his BUG nights – part comedy clip show, part TED lecture. With a laptop and projector, Buxton guides the audience through the contents of his computer and the results are both sweet and unsettling at the same time. It’s something Buxton, who performs at the Vodafone Comedy Festival at Dublin’s Iveagh Gardens on July 23 and 24, does so well, deftly dismantling both high and low culture. Support from Luke McQueen, Natasia Demetriou and Ellie White was bizarre, surreal and funny, in keeping with the Invisible Dot’s ethos.

The first of a two-day conference in the old Granada Television Studios (situated on Tony Wilson Place, in fact) was based around the theory of “interdependence”. It was a fascinating, enveloping day, distilling the soul of the festival with contributions from many of the artists. There is a lively discussion with some of the team behind the ballet Tree of Codes. Director of Dance at the Paris Ballet Benjamin Millepied and visual artist Olafur Eliasson talked about how the work with Wayne McGregor is about the reorganising of received wisdoms and the very nature of art itself.

Producer Arca and visual artist Jesse Kanda talked about their journeys to this point, tracing their friendship and paths from Venezuela to Connecticut and Japan, from meeting on the online community Deviant Art and working with Björk to the influence of Aphex Twin and anime on their work. The festival’s incoming director John McGrath talked about the limits of venues and structures (“venues should be less like landmarks and more like journeys”), while Manchester City Council chief executive Howard Bernstein discussed responsible civic planning and sowing the seeds for future growth, using Manchester’s 2002 Commonwealth Games as an example of laying the groundwork for the 2012 London Olympics.

There was also a performance by the MIF Sacred Sounds Choir, a showcase by New York’s Reggie ‘Regg Roc’ Gray and his Flex Dance crew, an exploration of artists living amid violence and war and discussions about the interchange between journalism and art, with insights from The Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill who travelled to Hong Kong to interview NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and break that story.

One of the most inspiring parts of the day was an expansive presentation by Jeremy Deller on his own processes as an artist, from his work reconstructing the Miners Strike/Orgreave riots in 1984 to “make people feel worse” to researching 150 years of Sean Ryder’s family tree,and his obsession with William Morris and his “true and false society”. Deller also presented his “Sex Machine/Funky Drummer” project, where a live drummer kept time to sounds from factories like the Lancashire loom with its “bouncy rock beat” and the Crane Mill, which was “more John Bonham”.

Part of this project is about connecting disparate musical movements who are respondoing to the absence and presence of industry, such as Chicago’s acid house with northern English brass bands. He brilliantly wove connections, such as how live metal music resembles the sights and sounds of factories, while his work with South Wales miner turned glam rock wrestler Adrian Street was about a belief that the future was not industry but entertainment.

It set the scene for that evening’s performance of Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker, a co-production with the Royal Exchange Theatre directed by Sarah Frankcom with the incomparable Maxine Peake in the title role of the “shape shifter and death portent, ancient and damaged”. It’s a tremendous production, if a little garbled, an angry and dense polemic about climate change and consumerism which feels even more topical and urgent now than it did 20 years ago.

The work pushes actors to their limits, resembling an even more twisted A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Like wonder.land, the entire cast works well, but it’s Peake’s moment, a character who is part-prophet, part-conscience and part-harpie. Nico Muhly and Antony’s unearthly and unsettling music complements the production, particularly their work on the chorale which accompanies the nightmarish banquet.

Sunday brings the ballet Tree of Codes at the Opera House and Björk at Castlefield Arena. Tree of Codes is a ballet inspired by Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, itself a re-presenting of Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles. The piece is stunning; the dancers, some from Wayne McGregor’s own company, and some from Paris Opera Ballet, are compelling and their work is so intricate,and strong. Ellison’s visual take is phenomenal, from the lighting to the set’s hall of mirrors. At different turns, the dancers and audience seem trapped in infinity.

The work fizzes with creativity and beauty, as does Jamie xx’s electronic score. He used Foer’s work to create a computer algorithm that provided the rhythmic structure, saying that he had “been able to do things that I would never put on a record”. It’s a beautiful piece of electronic music, which swirls and swells through layered synthesizers and calypso influences, conjuring a poignant and joyous atmosphere. The production is a feast for the senses and manages to be reflective and philosophical, sensuous and physical and full of deep feeling.

Very similar things could be written about Björk, who returns to the festival after 2011′s Biophilia residency with her heartbreaking record “Vulnicura”. Like that work, this is a stripped back peformance and she’s joined by British orchestra The Heritage, co-producer The Haxan Cloak and percussionist Manu Delago at Castlefield Arena, an amphitheatre under railway bridges that backs on to the Museum of Science & Industry. She skips onstage dressed as…is it a fluorescent moth, a butterfly or a mingling of the two? A perfect image, considering her pain on record.

Throughout the performance, there is a sense that she is reclaiming her own strength, as in “when I am broken, I am whole” from “Quicksand”. Much of the first half of the show is based around “Vulnicura”, with the devastating “Black Lake” as the centrepiece. The visuals are evocative, from insects climbing to Björk playfully roaming around a mountainside. At different turns, there are fireworks and paint smoke, which resemble pink and blue sulphur in the low-lit summer sky to bring us back to her Icelandic cocoon and the healing power of nature.

She offers up past work like little prayers, not only to the audience, but herself. “Army of Me”, “Hunter”, “5 Years”, “Where is the Line?”, “Bachelorette”, “Possibly Maybe” and “Wanderlust” remind us that it’s not only her vocal that is peerless, but also her imagination. By the time her encore comes around, “Hyperballad” feels like the most natural choice of all. As it sweeps the audience up with its powerful message of respect and harmony, we watch Björk skip offstage and we’re left with more hope than we came in with – and that doesn’t happen every day.