A look ahead to the 2015 Manchester International Festival

Christine Cort

Christine Cort - Credit: Archant

Blackburn’s Christine Cort is the woman behind the Manchester International festival, one of the biggest and most important arts events of its kind in the world

Tree of Codes - Slow-motion shadow in colour - Olafur Eliasson

Tree of Codes - Slow-motion shadow in colour - Olafur Eliasson - Credit: Olafur Eliasson

‘His work is clearly part of a long tradition, and there’s a line that stretches all the way through his teacher Jack Tripp and back to Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and the greats of silent comedy.’ It’s the kind of build up you might have come to expect for a headline act at the Manchester International Festival, but it’s not a tribute often paid to a performer on children’s television.

Previous festivals have attracted massive international stars but one of the first names announced for this year’s event was Justin Fletcher.

And while Justin – who is better known to millions of younger viewers as Mr Tumble – might not have the worldwide fame of others on the bill, he’s already well on the way to being a sell-out success at a festival which has become known for its risk-taking. Among the highlights of past festivals, Kenneth Branagh played Macbeth in a decommissioned church, former Brit-pop star Damon Albarn wrote an opera and Turner Prize and Oscar winning artist Steve McQueen staged a tribute to fallen soldiers.

The festival’s managing director Christine Cort said: ‘We have learned to take risks and to be bold and ambitious. We never wanted it to be like other festivals which have many more events happening, we wanted to do 15 or 20 things each time but to make sure they were amazing. We could have sold out a huge venue every night for Macbeth but Kenneth Branagh wanted to do something more intense for a smaller audience. It’s about the quality of the artists and their vision.’

Age of Starlight visual concept by Peter Saville & Hemisphere. Spiral galaxy image ESO P.D. Barthel

Age of Starlight visual concept by Peter Saville & Hemisphere. Spiral galaxy image ESO P.D. Barthel - Credit: ESO PD Barthel

The vision for the festival itself came from Alex Poots, the former artistic director of the English National Opera. In the wake of the city’s Commonwealth Games in 2002, Manchester City Council sought his advice on creating a world-leading arts festival. At the heart of his recommendations he said they should find someone good to run it and let them get on with it. They gave him the job.

One of the first things he did was to recruit Christine. She had recently moved back to Lancashire after about 20 years in London during which she worked at the Riverside Studios, Terrence Conran’s Design Museum and the magazine Time Out.

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‘I have loved all my jobs and we had an amazing life in London,’ she said. ‘I really lived that city for 20 years but in my heart I always knew we would move back north one day. I’m really proud of being from the North. I’m not one of those who goes to London and forgets their roots.’

Christine was born in 1963 Blackburn. Her mum worked on the pharmacy counter at Boots while her dad was a gas fitter and although Christine knew as she was growing up that she didn’t want to stay in the town, it’s an area she has retained a deep affection for.

During their time in London, she and husband Paul – an illustrator originally from Oswaldtwistle – kept a house at the foot of Pendle Hill and since her return she has been involved in projects to help improve her old home town such as Blackburn is Open which aims to rejuvenate the town centre and which her old friend Wayne Hemingway is involved in (and has written about in Lancashire Life).

‘I always try to give one thing back every year for free and it has to be something I really believe in,’ said Christine, who now lives in Wilpshire. ‘I have known Wayne since I was 14 and he asked if I could help with Blackburn is Open. I genuinely believe it is making a difference. I can feel it. It’s always easier to moan but if we do a little bit to help it can make a big difference and that’s what Blackburn is Open is doing.

‘I do it to make my mum and dad proud. They were proud northerners and I am at heart. They brought me up really well. I had a wonderful upbringing and I want to try to help to make Blackburn as good as it can be for my son’s generation.’

Christine blinks away tears as she speaks of her dad Rowland who died last summer. ‘He had kept every programme my name appeared on. He circled it and put upward arrows when I’d been promoted. No-one could have been prouder.’

Christine made the move to London after completing an English degree at Edge Hill, where she admits she was more interested in gigs and the theatre than studying. The bulk of her time in the capital was spent at Time Out and she said: ‘I spent 12 years there in three different jobs, ending up as group marketing director. We launched Time Out New York, Istanbul, Paris and Dubai and I developed a real understanding of cities – the people, the economics and how they work.

‘One day when I was in Istanbul my husband rang me and suggested we move back north. Our friends were furious, they thought we must have been planning it for months but we hadn’t. I left a very big job, we sold the house to the first person who looked at it and I was going to take a full year off.

‘Our son had gone from a school in Brixton Hill with 150 children from a multitude of cultural backgrounds to a much smaller primary in Roughlee. I had a vision of myself walking home from school picking blackberries.

‘But three weeks after we moved I had a call from Alex Poots and I couldn’t say no to him. He wanted to create a festival in Manchester which people internationally would come to. It would have world premieres and special events all over the city. Nothing could have been further from my mind, I wanted a year off, but how could I not do it?’

Launched in 2007, MIF is the world’s only biennial festival of world premières and special events from across the spectrum of performing arts, visual arts and popular culture. It is estimated that about 250,000 attended the 2013 festival – 50,000 of them at free events around the city – and that the festival added £38m to city’s coffers.

‘We formed the company in 2005 and that was the most truly life-affirming risky thing I have ever done. We said initially that we would do three bi-annual festivals and then walk away but this year’s will be the fifth. We had thought that after three we would have done all we could but now we can see so much we want to do.’

Shortly after our interview in the MIF’s swish open-plan offices in the city centre, Alex announced he would be leaving after this summer’s festival to become the founding chief executive of Culture Shed in New York.

‘It will be very sad to see Alex go in September but we are all immensely proud of everything we’ve achieved together over the last decade,’ said Christine. ‘We’ve started the recruitment process and will have a successor in post before the Festival in July. We won’t have time to dwell on Alex’s departure though – we have a very busy few months ahead of us. This year’s festival is shaping up to be our best yet and we are hugely excited to share our work with Manchester and the wider world.’

The 2015 Manchester International Festival will run from Thursday July 2 to Sunday July 19, with shows, performances and events taking place around the city.

Richter / Pärt is a remarkable project, several years in the making. Gerhard Richter and Arvo Pärt have made work inspired by and dedicated to each other, after being introduced by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Alex Poots in 2013. These works will be united for the first time at the recently re-opened the Whitworth art gallery. To accompany the show at the Whitworth the Manchester Camerata will perform an evening of Pärt’s music at the Bridgewater Hall conducted by Gábor Takács-Nagy.

Also at the Bridgewater Hall, Mark Simpson, one of Britain’s brightest young composers, presents the world premiere of his first large scale commission, The Immortal, performed by the BBC Philharmonic. This new work for orchestra and choir explores the obsession with death that lies at the heart of the human experience, in a programme completed by Mozart’s Requiem.

Neck of the Woods sees Turner Prize-winning artist Douglas Gordon and celebrated pianist Hélène Grimaud create a portrait of the wolf in a collision of visual art, music and theatre onstage at new arts centre HOME, with Charlotte Rampling as the raconteur.

FKA twigs will be making her MIF debut with a residency at Old Granada Studios, Soundtrack 7. FKA twigs and collaborators will make seven short films over the week, with audiences invited in to observe the process.

Maxine Peake and Sarah Frankcom return to MIF with The Skriker at The Royal Exchange Theatre, a landmark revival of Caryl Churchill’s clash of ancient fairy story and portrait of a fractured England, featuring specially commissioned music by Nico Muhly and Antony.

Choreographer Wayne McGregor is creating Tree of Codes for MIF 2015, a contemporary ballet inspired by the book Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer. Soloists and dancers from The Paris Opera Ballet alongside Company Wayne McGregor will form the company, performing in an environment created by visual artist Olafur Eliasson to a score composed by Mercury Prize-winning producer/composer Jamie xx.

Artist Ed Atkins is lifting the veil on the production of digital art with Performance Capture at Manchester Art Gallery; this installation will provide a unique and reflexive insight into the production of a computer-generated moving image work.

wonder.land is a new musical inspired by Lewis Carroll’s iconic Alice In Wonderland, with music by Damon Albarn and book and lyrics by Moira Buffini. This co-production with the National Theatre will be directed by its Director Rufus Norris. To celebrate the new musical and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland acclaimed chef Mary-Ellen McTague will create High Tea in Wonderland, a magical food event behind the scenes at Manchester Museum.

Four years on from her ground-breaking Biophilia residency, Björk returns to MIF for a spectacular one-off gig at Manchester’s Castlefield Arena, while 24-year old Venezuelan artist Arca (co-producer for Björk’s Vulnicura) makes his first MIF appearance. One of the most innovative and inspired musical voices of his generation, he will present a live show with his long-time collaborator, visual artist Jesse Kanda.

The Age of Starlight will be a world first show about the origin of the universe and everything within and without it, brought to life by the incredible new cinematic reality technology that is being pioneered by Magic Leap.

While work on the commission will continue past 2015 in order to fully realise this ambitious new show, audiences at MIF15 will be invited to a presentation by members of the creative team, charting the progress made so far and the compelling ideas behind the project.

FlexN Manchester sees Brooklyn-based Flex dance pioneer Reggie ‘Roc’ Gray and a specially assembled team of Flex dancers making their European debut as part of MIF15. This unique transatlantic collaboration will unite the best of street dance from Brooklyn and Manchester to create a final performance combining the Flex dancers and Manchester crews.

CBeebies’ Justin Fletcher will bring The Tale of Mr Tumble to Manchester’s Opera House. This special new show will give children and families the chance to see Mr Tumble live and up close as he and his family share some of their fondest memories.

Interdependence is a two-day event of discussion, debate and inspiring thinking with some a chance to join some of the world’s leading artists, performers, scientists, writers and technologists in Manchester. The event takes place at a pivotal moment for Manchester, with a record amount of investment flowing into the city to support innovation across artistic and scientific endeavors. Participants will include Olafur Eliasson, Professor Sir Konstantin Novoselov, Jeremy Deller and Alex Poots.

Industrious comedy innovators The Invisible Dot Ltd present a three-part programme of intrepid and original works in MIF’s own Pavilion Theatre. The Crocodile, written by Tom Basden and directed by Ned Bennett, tells the story of Ivan and Zack’s afternoon at the zoo, which is disturbed when Ivan is eaten by a crocodile. Cult geek, award-winning radio host and tech guru Adam Buxton premiers his latest material and introduces his funniest friends. The Invisible Dot Cabaret present late night line-ups from their most celebrated jokers.

Throughout MIF15, Manchester’s Albert Square becomes Festival Square, home to the Pavilion Theatre, Festival Pavilion, The Glass House and MIF Box Office. As well as hosting a programme of club nights and free DJs, innovative comedy, guided walks and exclusive talks, Festival Square offers a place to eat, drink, relax, socialize and soak up the MIF experience.

10% of tickets for all shows across the Festival are available at £12 to Greater Manchester residents on or below the national living wage, with the aim of making more of the Festival more accessible to local people on a lower wage. The £12 ticket scheme was introduced in 2013 and has doubled this year from 5% to 10%.

MIF Creative is Manchester International Festival’s creative learning programme and is all about collaborative projects that give exciting opportunities for local communities to get involved in the development of artistic productions and be inspired by artists who are at the top of their game. Its activities range from large-scale artistic commissions developed with everyone from local schoolchildren to shop assistants, from refugees to pensioners; to programmes to help emerging Manchester-based producers get ahead on the professional ladder. MIF Creative projects for 2015 include FlexN Manchester, The Tale of Mr Tumble and Sacred Sounds Women’s Choir, established for MIF13, who this year provide a soundscape and chorus for Neck of the Woods.

Book tickets online at www.mif.co.uk or call the box office on 0844 871 7654.