Modernist ballet and "chimney sweep music": Stuart Maconie on the Manchester International Festival

Damon Albarn's wonder.land and Tree of Codes, with music by Jamie xx, open this year's festival.

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wonder.land
Palace Theatre, Manchester M1

Tree of Codes
Manchester Opera House, Manchester M3

It came as something of a shock for us fans of the city’s creative sons and daughters, be they Harrison Birtwistle, Factory Records, L S Lowry, Shelagh Delaney, Anthony Burgess or the Hollies, to pluck out a few at random, to be told by the French theatre director Jean-Luc Choplin that, before the launch of the Manchester International Festival, “For the world at least, Manchester was previously just a city for soccer, not at all a cultural city . . . Suddenly with MIF, it is very clear that Manchester now belongs in the cultural map of the world.”

“MIF” is a biennial celebration of original works across theatre, dance, music and art, and whilst Choplin might have hit a bum note even if he meant well, there is no doubt that the festival has brought exciting new work to a city well used to making its own. The current MIF will be the last for its founding director, Alex Poots, who is leaving to launch an arts centre in Manhattan. In a round of valedictory interviews, Poots defended himself against not unreasonable charges that MIF relies too much on a handful of associated artists and performers by pointing out that, once forged, these relationships should be nurtured and exploited creatively. Two such artists, both from the world of modern British pop, were involved in the opening nights of this year’s festival – Damon Albarn and Jamie xx.

Choplin made his remarks after working with Albarn on the opera Monkey for MIF in 2007. After that came the Blur frontman’s Elizabethan masque Dr Dee, and now what is billed as a “family-friendly musical”, wonder.land, an updating of Lewis Carroll’s enduring fantasy, to coincide with its 150th anniversary. That dot is a telling piece of punctuation. At an early meeting about the project between the composer, the lyricist Moira Buffini and the director Rufus Norris, Albarn apparently pointed to his smartphone and said, “That’s the rabbit hole.” In this reboot, Alice is “Aly”, an African-Caribbean schoolgirl from an urban area, escaping school woes and domestic chaos through her devices. She creates a daringly un-PC avatar in the form of Alice of the classic Tenniel illustrations: a prim and pretty Caucasian princess in nursery finery. Yet the online world is no cosier than Aly’s domestic realm and the two overlap and meld as, in one instance, her martinet headmistress morphs into the Queen of Hearts. All of this is conjured with fabulous projections and sets and performances of verve, especially by Lois Chimimba and Anna Francolini. The Cheshire Cat is nicely louche, in human and projected form, and Tweedledum and Tweedledee are nicely peevish.

When, at the height of the Britpop madness, Liam Gallagher dismissed Albarn’s work as “chimney-sweep music”, it was a cheeky but baseless gibe. Here, it wouldn’t have been so amiss. Albarn clearly revels in his love of Lionel Bart, Joan Littlewood and his teenage years in musical theatre. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party sets the tone for a second half that often has the ghost of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins hanging over it. There are echoes, too, of Grange Hill, of a smart, well-meaning show about kids designed by adults; fun, but without the malice, madness and, to grab the word back for a moment, “random” nature of both the modern teenager’s world and that of Lewis Carroll. The dark trippiness of the original gives way to a more topical reading that encompasses divorce and cyber-bullying with an earnestness that Carroll’s vision never had, which perhaps accounts for the book’s longevity. Wonder.land transfers to the National Theatre in London in November. It will be interesting to see what kind of audience it finds there.

The highlights of the last MIF, for this writer and many others, were the haunting and intimate performances by The xx in the tunnels beneath this city’s Victoria Station, making stunning use of the claustrophobic feel of the space. Jamie Smith (aka Jamie xx, of that band) has returned to MIF to provide the music for a new ballet choreographed by Wayne McGregor and designed by Olafur Eliasson. Tree of Codes is based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s cut-up version of Bruno Schulz’s surreal, mitteleuropäisch, modernist short-story collection The Street of Crocodiles, and sets 15 dancers, drawn from the Paris Opera Ballet and Company Wayne McGregor, in spaces of mutating light and shifting size, achieved by using movable lights, scrims and mirrors.

The most enduring ballets as far as mainstream audiences are concerned – say, Firebird, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake – have been based on Ur-stories, folk and fairy tales. A made-for-ballet version of an experimental riff on a modernist literary enigma is maybe as opaque as a sign-language Hamlet, so better to enjoy Tree of Codes as a sensual immersion, a ravishing musical/visual spectacle and display of intense physicality. In this, it wholly succeeds. Smith’s music has a kind of ecstatic melancholy and nods to both dance music and art-house minimalism. The connections between music and movement were sometimes vague, and such is the episodic nature of the ballet that any story becomes refracted and obscure. But perhaps that is to miss the point. Tree of Codes is always interesting, sometimes mesmerising, occasionally transporting. The dancers’ sheer energy and technique are compelling to watch as, through Eliasson’s hall-of-mirrors design, they become reflected into infinity, or framed in pas de deux with themselves. It was this, one felt, more than any other element, that drew a swift and heartfelt standing ovation from the first-night audience.

Poots has always said that MIF should be about taking chances and giving artists a platform to do good work above and beyond any concerns of economic impact. Still to come this year are Arvo Pärt, Maxine Peake and CBeebies’ Mr Tumble. It is to be hoped that under the new stewardship of John McGrath, the former artistic director of National Theatre of Wales, MIF continues both to appeal to the people of the city and to grow curiouser and curiouser.

The festival runs until 19 July. Visit: mif.co.uk

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article appears in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war