Top talents fly in for queer celebration

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The Independent Culture

When Diamanda Galas, one of contemporary music's most singular divas, pierces the beginning of September with two concerts performed in the intimate 400-seater setting of the Quays Theatre at Salford's Lowry, no one will be happier than the woman responsible for booking her. Tanja Farman, co-founder, director and artistic producer of Manchester's Queer Up North Festival.

When Diamanda Galas, one of contemporary music's most singular divas, pierces the beginning of September with two concerts performed in the intimate 400-seater setting of the Quays Theatre at Salford's Lowry, no one will be happier than the woman responsible for booking her. Tanja Farman, co-founder, director and artistic producer of Manchester's Queer Up North Festival.

That Galas - an artist usually found playing packed houses in Barbican-sized venues - will be in Manchester at all, and with the UK premiÿre of "La Serpenta Canta", to boot, is testimony that Queer Up North, founded in 1992 and now in its sixth season, has come of age. More importantly, it also proves that the festival has in the intervening years earned the international clout it needs to become a major player on Britain's live arts scene.

It's also a gratifying development to see an organisation outside London take the initiative in this way. This year's event, as Farman points out with evident pleasure, is broader than ever before. Hoping to draw over 30,000 people, the programme offers a clutch of world and European premiÿres. Actor and writer Ursula Martinez (of A Family Affair fame), American dancer Julie Tolentino and, from Australia, performance art duo Moira Finucane with Jackie Smith will all be presenting new works commissioned primarily by Queer Up North. Other highlights include companies from the US, Australia and Europe. Significantly, the festival's new partnership with mainstream venues - the Royal Exchange, the Goethe-Institut (which is hosting a Marlene Dietrich exhibition) and the Lowry - signals a level of professionalism and acceptance that most small arts organisations find hard to achieve. To cap it all, the first Queer Up North Film Festival, is offering a programme devised by the team behind the BFI's London-based gay and lesbian festival.

Founded by Farman, then programme liaison manager at Manchester's Green Room Theatre with her colleague Gavin Barlow, Queer Up North was devised as everything that Gay Pride wasn't. Indeed, its title - highlighting a "queer aesthetic" - signalled the festival's intention to carve out a niche that would allow it to sit alongside more mainstream gay-themed events, while steadfastly maintaining its independence.

"I think the fact that it's an international arts festival means that Queer Up North has asserted its own identity", Farman says. "I'm not ashamed to say that it doesn't have the same community roots as the pride-type festivals. The good thing about Manchester is that there's a big enough audience for Queer Up North to be a cultural festival - which, first and foremost, it is - to sit alongside the newer Gay Fest."

Now a biannual event, its success lies as much in canny programming as tight financial controls in, what, as various Gay prides have found, a fraught area. "We've never jumped into bed, so to speak, with Mardi Gras or Gay Fest," says Farman. "That's not because we're not supportive; it's about retaining the identity. We have a unique selling point and we try to get the best of queer performance. There is a real place for Pride, in its political and celebratory manifestations, but our autonomy is important to us."

But Queer Up North is also a radical illustration of the progress of what was once termed "gay performance" into new areas. "The whole community and climate has changed." Farman says. "Queer has become part of the mainstream, and we've actually managed to reach a much broader audience than just the lesbian and gay community. Also, the artists' work is no longer rooted in personal stories around HIV or coming out, so the shows of performers like Ursula Martinez or Phillip Adams can appeal to everyone. Diamanda isn't a lesbian and she's here. And she's a hot ticket"

Queer Up North International Arts Festival: Manchester (0161 907 9000), 25 August to 16 September; Queer Up North Film Festival: (0161 200 1500), 8-14 September

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