Northern England's beating cultural heart

The Manchester International Festival promises a vibrant mix of theatre, performance art and music, says Paul Vallely

When Marina Abramovic broke up with her lover it was no ordinary parting. To symbolise the end of their relationship the pair went to opposite ends of the Great Wall of China and began walking towards one another. When they met near the middle, three months and 2,500 kilometres later, they said good-bye.

Abramovic, the godmother of performance art, who has inspired characters as diverse as Tracey Emin and Lady Gaga, sees her life and art as coterminous. Her death, she has decided, ought also to be a great piece of art – and therefore too important an event to leave to chance.

One of the highlights of the Manchester International Festival, which specialises in commissioning bold new pieces of art, will be "The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic". In it the Serbian artist is being directed by America's leading avant-garde theatre director, Robert Wilson.

"It will be something special," says Alex Poots, who has seen many extraordinary productions since launching the biennial festival in 2007. There are to be six performances, so we should not expect Ms Abramovic to interpret the business of death too literally. And Poots would like to have her back in the future.

Continuity is a hallmark of this festival. Big on the bill are new works by Damon Albarn and Johnny Vegas, both memorable in previous years. Albarn is producing an "English opera" based on the Renaissance scientist, alchemist, inventor and spy John Dee, who inspired Shakespeare's Prospero and Marlow's Dr Faustus in the age before science, religion and magic split. It is a meditation on England then and now.

Johnny Vegas has devised a drama based on the lives, on and off the air, of a couple working for a television shopping channel. The on-air parts will be broadcast live every night on Ideal World channel, with Vegas selling products.

"I like returning artists, not because my address book isn't big enough, but because when you already know people you start in a different place," says Poots, though three-quarters of this year's productions are by new arrivals.

The festival has distinctively Mancunian tones. Victoria Wood's new musical, That Day We Sang, is set on the day that the Manchester School Children's Choir made the famous 1929 Hallé record of "Nymphs and Shepherds". "With a choir of 120, it's a production that couldn't be done in the West End," says Poots.

Music has been an important part of Manchester's heritage, he says, so the festival includes a lot of pop – premieres of new albums by Björk and Sinead O'Connor and new shows from Snoop Dogg and Rickie Lee Jones. Links between international artists and the local community have produced Sacred Sites concerts in synagogues, temples, mosques and churches with international artists like Candi Staton offering gospel, Sephardic hymns and Sufi chanting. And in run-down Wythenshawe, once the biggest council estate in Europe, the festival has created a vertical farm in a disused 10-storey tower block, a three-year project to get people to produce food for themselves and the festival catering outlets.

Such bold vision illuminates the festival programme. A free performance of Die Walküre by the Hallé (with tickets allocated by ballot) hopes to draw in audiences new to opera with a short play about Wagner as a curtain-raiser. There is an ambitious children-only show by Punchdrunk and the producers of Doctor Who. And in the Co-op Ballroom, where Hendrix played in the Seventies, two blind African superstars, Amadou & Mariam, will perform a fusion of pop, blues and Malian music in a blacked-out hall.

With street sounds from Bamako and African smells conjured by a local perfumier it should please, fascinate and unsettle in equal measure – a manifesto, perhaps for the whole festival.

Manchester International Festival (0161 876 2198) 30 June to 17 July

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