MANAGING the needs of one artist fretting about one project is difficult enough. Juggling 20 such projects every other year is the arts administrator’s version of chicken, a game at which Alex Poots, the outgoing artistic director of the Manchester International Festival (MIF), is alarmingly adept. Over the festival’s 10-year history, only one show—this year’s “The Age of Starlight”—has not been ready in time.
Twenty-three new productions were presented this month over the 18 days of festival. Some, like the aggressively confusing “Neck of the Woods”, would perhaps have benefited from, if not more time, at least more judicious use of the red pen. Charlotte Rampling did her best with Veronica Gonzalez Peña’s script, but there is a limit to what an actress can do with a Red Riding Hood who must slow-dance with a stuffed wolf. The director, Douglas Gordon, chose to start and finish the show with an ear-achingly loud series of thumps wrought, presumably, by the heroine’s lumberjack father hitting what sounded like a steel tree. Whether a metaphor or poor sound engineering, the audience stopped caring well before the final chop.
Yet MIF mainly manages to produce work that audiences want to see again. Mr Poots, who is leaving Manchester for a job at the Culture Shed in New York, has long been a savvy selector. Since 2007 28 of the 97 works MIF has commissioned—including Rufus Wainwright’s opera “Prima Donna”, Matthew Barney’s opera “River of Fundament” and Damon Albarn’s stage musical “Monkey: Journey to the West”—have transferred abroad.
Mr Albarn has had three turns on the MIF stage and his latest, “Wonder.land” (pictured), an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” is his best. It is the biggest stylistic leap from the work he did with the Gorillaz and is a skilful balancing of his own dystopian version of the internet and a jolly Cockney knees-up. Alice is re-imagined as Aly, a London schoolgirl desperate to be a skinny blonde. She explores this fantasy via an avatar in a video game called Wonder.land.
Delightful absurdity leavened with dashes of internet menace ensues. Moira Buffini’s otherwise excellent book veers dangerously close to moralising, though, when Aly encounters and then sees off the mean girls, but Rufus Norris made the sets and ancillary characters so much fun that there’s room for an occasional sermonette.
If delivering a good night out is what a new show aims for, then most MIF commissions succeed. Considering how many new pieces disappear the moment the final curtain falls, this is no faint praise. Björk turned up again this year; “The Skriker” gave Maxine Peake six ways to terrify the audience; and there were gigs for musicians such as FKA twigs and Four Tet, as well as a show from FlexN, a street-dance troupe. Even the kids got a look-in with “The Tale of Mr Tumble”.
The rarest, but most desired, permutation in collaboration is for each strand to amplify the others, creating something better than the individual participants can make on their own. At the 2015 festival, this was epitomised by “Tree of Codes”, a ballet inspired by Jonathan Safran Foer’s book of the same name. The dancers—from both classical and contemporary backgrounds—not only drew energy from the combination of choreography by Wayne McGregor, music by Jamie xx and lighting by Olafur Eliasson, but used it to launch themselves into another world. Aside from the long hair, there was no way to know which dancers belonged to Mr McGregor’s Random Dance company and which were from the Paris Opera Ballet. Marie-Agnès Gillot, a dancer from Paris with impossibly long legs, danced as if it were for the last time. That alone would have been enough to make the night. Instead it was just one part of a piece of art that showed the very best of what humans can achieve. If that happens once a decade, it is enough.
The piece first appeared on Economist.com