A 42m Big Ben made of books, Deansgate filled with Dancers and LOADS more... Manchester International Festival's 2021 Programme

MIF have announced their vibrant programme set to take over the city in July...

By Manchester's Finest | 28 April 2021

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Manchester International Festival (MIF), returns from 1st – 18th July with a vibrant programme of original new work from across the spectrum of visual and performing arts and music by artists from over 20 countries.

Events will take place safely in indoor and outdoor locations across Greater Manchester, including the first ever work on the construction site of The Factory, the landmark cultural space that will be MIF’s future home.

Artists include Angélique Kidjo, Akram Khan, Arlo Parks, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, Boris Charmatz, Cerys Matthews, Christine Sun Kim, Cillian Murphy, Deborah Warner, Forensic Architecture, Ibrahim Mahama, Kemang Wa Lehulere, Laure Prouvost, Marta Minujín, Lemn Sissay and Patti Smith.

The Factory – new home to MIF

A rich online offer will provide a window into the Festival wherever audiences are, including livestreams and work created especially for the digital realm.

With almost all the work created in the past year, MIF21 provides a unique snapshot of these unprecedented times. Artists have reflected on ideas such as love and human connections, the way we play, division and togetherness, equality and social change, and the relationship between the urban and the rural.

For the first time, the curation of the Festival’s talks and discussions programme has been handed over to local people, building on MIF’s work involving the community as artistic collaborators and participants in work shaped by them.

Festival Square returns in new location Cathedral Gardens with a packed programme of food, drink and free live music, DJs and more

Festival Square 2019

As one of the first major public events in the city, MIF21 will play a key role in the safe reopening of the city’s economy and provide employment for hundreds of freelancers and artists

Much of the programme will be free to attend, with more work than ever in public spaces around the city. Tickets will be on sale on from Thursday 20th May 2021.

MIF21 Programme

Sea Change

On the Festival’s opening night, a new outdoor dance work by French choreographer Boris Charmatz (10000 Gestures MIF19). Sea Change will fill Deansgate with a chain of professional and non-professional dancers – including more than 150 local residents – each performing and repeating a dance movement on the spot in a joyous celebration of togetherness in a post-Covid world.


Opera and Theatre director Deborah Warner will unveil a new sound and light installation, Arcadia, created specifically for the site of The Factory. For one weekend only, audiences will be invited to wander through a field of luminous tents housing a murmuring soundscape of poetry inspired by the natural world: from Sappho to Simon Armitage and from William Blake to Sabrina Mahfouz, featuring recorded contributions from leading actors and musicians including Simon Russell Beale, RoxXxan, Jane Horrocks, Brian Cox, Lionness, David Thewlis, and many others.

Notes on Grief

One of the most compelling pieces of writing to be published in 2020 was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay for the New Yorker, Notes on Grief, a tribute to the father she loved ‘so much, so fiercely, so tenderly’ and a poignant meditation on the meaning, impact and nature of grief. Director Rae McKen takes the acclaimed author of Half a Yellow Sun’s words and transfers them to the stage in this powerful and timely MIF21 world premiere.

Big Ben Lying Down with Political Books

Argentinian art pioneer Marta Minujín will present Big Ben Lying Down with Political Books, a monumental 42m sculpture of the iconic London landmark in Piccadilly Gardens. Assembled from 20,000 copies of books that have shaped British politics, it is a joyful provocation to reimagine our national symbols and unite around democracy and equality.

The Global Playground

The way we play has taken on a new resonance over the months of lockdown. Marking 25 years of Theatre-Rites (The Welcoming Party, MIF17), The Global Playground is an uplifting new show mixing dance, music , theatre and puppetry for children and family audiences, choreographed by Gregory Maqoma (Tree MIF19) and scored by Ayanna Witter-Johnson, which considers how we connect and sometimes disconnect and how we make the most of the time we spend together.

100 Portraits of Black British People

Also responding to the events of the past year, artist and activist Cephas Williams will create 100 portraits of Black British people, including many from Manchester, displayed throughout Manchester Arndale, making visible and highlighting the contribution of Black people living in the UK.

Cloud Studies

At the Whitworth, a major exhibition that coincides with the tenth anniversary of Forensic Architecture, Cloud Studies exposes how state power mobilises the air we breathe to suppress and dominate. The exhibition includes the first phase of a significant new investigation on environmental racism in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, a region where majority-Black communities, are exposed to the most toxic air in the US.

The long waited, weighted gathering

A new commission by Turner Prize winner Laure Prouvost, The long waited, weighted gathering, will mark the opening of the redeveloped and extended Manchester Jewish Museum. The immersive installation will include a new film, shot inside the museum and in the surrounding Cheetham Hill area, inspired by the museum’s history as a former Spanish and Portuguese synagogue.

All of This Unreal Time

The need to care for those alongside us and the earth that sustains us is the theme of All of This Unreal Time, a new film starring Cillian Murphy, written by Max Porter and directed by Aoife McArdle with music by Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner and Jon Hopkins, which candidly examines one man’s failings. It will be presented for its MIF21 world premiere as an immersive installation in surround sound.

Poet Slash Artist

Poetry is also the subject of a collaboration by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and poet Lemn Sissay at HOME’s gallery and across the city. Poet Slash Artist brings together poets who work with visual art, and visual artists who work with poetry from Tracey Emin to Inua Ellams, Imtiaz Dharker to Sky Hopinka, Lubaina Himid to Adonis. Alongside, Cerys Matthews will curate a special live event celebrating words and music.

Postcards From Now

Postcards From Now is a set of new film projects by leading artists from across the globe which ask how Covid-19 compels us to question how we will all live in the future. Choreographer Akram Khan and animator and film director Naaman Azhari explore how tragedy can bring us together; visual artist Ibrahim Mahama gives an insight to creative education for young people in rural Ghana, Musician and activist Angélique Kidjo creates a potent portrait of her home country Benin and the women who inhabit it; a collaboration between choreographer Lucinda Childs and the artist collective (LA)HORDE shows the artistic process of creation in lockdown across borders; and director Lola Arias exposes and explores ageism in a pandemic society.

Captioning the City

Christine Sun Kim will create a series of installations that caption the world that surrounds us – from descriptions installed on buildings, to a plane with a banner caption flying over the city. Playful, powerful and political, Captioning the City invites us to consider what makes up the essence of a city – and to experience our world in a whole new dimension.


Leading Pakistani artist Rashid Rana will present a project conceived entirely around his concept of EART. It includes an anti-consumerist grocery store that will open as a fully functioning Manchester shop, selling generic, locally sourced and unbranded produce, seeking to reframe the act of buying as a social, personal and global cause.

I Love You Too

I Love You Too by South African artist Kemang Wa Lehulere will see the publication of a book of love letters told by over 100 Greater Manchester residents from across Manchester to a team of poets and writers, alongside a new installation in the grand Reading Room of Manchester Central Library.

MIF’s Music Programme

An eclectic music programme spans internationally-acclaimed artists and homegrown talent including a special one-off concert from the singer-songwriter Arlo Parks who will be performing with musicians from Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music; two nights of performances from the incomparable poet, musician and activist Patti Smith; and a partnership with Homecoming, the Lagos-based festival of African creativity, music, fashion, sport, politics and art – the first event in a long-term relationship with Homecoming, a cultural exchange between Nigeria and Manchester with events leading up and at The Factory.

Journey deep into Manchester’s Hip Hop underground – with a packed line-up taking in everything from urban pioneers to emerging grassroots talent in collaboration with Unity Radio and Manchester Hip Hop Archive; emerging Islamic culture festival Salaam will showcase the music talent of singer Abi Sampa, kora virtuoso Sona Jobarteh and poet Muneera Williams; and Manchester Camerata will perform a site-specific concert called The Patience of Trees, featuring a newly commissioned concerto for solo violin, strings and percussion by Dobrinka Tabakova and performed by Hugo Ticciati, inspired by the healing potential and power of the natural world.

Festival Square

Festival Square returns in the new location of Cathedral Gardens designed by the architects Hawkins\Brown. The hub of the Festival in the centre of the city, audiences can expect fun-filled days of food, drink and free entertainment. Expect curated nights from Jamz Supernova, Homoelectric, Mr Scruff and DJ Paulette along with many more artists and performers from across the UK.

As ever there will be a range of artists in residence during this festival – both in Manchester and online – developing ideas for The Factory and future editions of MIF.

As part of their 200th anniversary celebrations, The Guardian will co-host a keynote lecture on the opening night of MIF. One of the world’s most progressive and groundbreaking artists will explore the urgent themes of our time through the lens of ‘work in progress’, followed by a Q&A.


MIF’s online channel MIF LIVE will return for the Festival, following the success of the free programme for audiences at home during lockdown. A rich online offer will include a mix of performance, live music, exclusive interviews, and a range of commentary and talks, providing a window into the Festival and giving audiences the opportunity to interact and engage with MIF wherever they are in the world.

Online audiences will also be able to visit the Virtual Factory – a major series of online artworks inspired by the architecture and the ambition of the building – which include a playable interpretation of The Factory in Fortnite Creative. Premiering during MIF21, artist, writer and game designer Robert Yang has created a queer video game which explores gender, sexuality, gardening and society.

The Walk, is a major production from Good Chance, in association with Handspring Puppet Company, which will enact the journey of a nine-year-old refugee girl in the form of a giant living artwork. Originally due to conclude during MIF21, MIF will be marking the start of Little Amal’s journey from the Turkish-Syrian border in a special ceremony in July 2021, before welcoming her to the city for the finale event later in the year.

Festival in My House

For the first time, Manchester residents will take over the curation of the Festival’s talks and discussions series, building on MIF’s pioneering work with the community as artistic collaborators, such as Festival in My House where Greater Manchester residents programmed their own international micro-festivals.

Featuring a range of speakers, including artists, activists, key workers, campaigners and members of the Greater Manchester community, Looking Forward to Tomorrow will explore some of the big issues of the day including the climate emergency and anti-Black racism.

Local people are at the heart of many commissions, including Sea Change, I Love You Too and Portrait of Black Britain. Other opportunities for Greater Manchester residents to get involved in this year’s Festival includes a volunteer programme involving hundreds people from the region, a new Neighbourhood Organiser initiative connecting the Festival to communities around Greater Manchester and a wide-range of opportunities to perform on Festival Square.

With the creative community seriously affected by the COVID-19 crisis, MIF has been supporting local artists and creatives in a number of ways including selecting five Greater Manchester artists for Creative Fellowships which provide mentor support, a £3,000 bursary, and opportunities to shadow the creation of major Festival productions.

MIF has also been supporting those involved in Manchester’s music scene through MIF Sounds, providing funding and professional guidance, and is a major partner in the Independent Artist Initiative – supporting independent artists and companies in Greater Manchester to develop and share their work across the summer, including during the festival.

Manchester International Festival Artistic Director & Chief Executive, John McGrath says: “MIF has always been a Festival like no other – with almost all the work being created especially for us in the months and years leading up to each Festival edition. But who would have guessed two years ago what a changed world the artists making work for our 2021 Festival would be working in?”

“I am thrilled to be revealing the projects that we will be presenting from 1-18 July this year – a truly international programme of work made in the heat of the past year and a vibrant response to our times. Created with safety and wellbeing at the heart of everything, it is flexible to ever-changing circumstances, and boldly explores both real and digital space.

“We hope MIF21 will provide a time and place to reflect on our world now, to celebrate the differing ways we can be together, and to emphasise, despite all that has happened, the importance of our creative connections – locally and globally.”

Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council, says: “After the year we’ve all had that has been such a massive challenge for our cultural sector – which was the first to lockdown a year ago and will be the last to reopen – Manchester needs MIF this year more than ever.

“Manchester has always been a city that values and champions culture and is rightly recognised across the globe for its strengths and innovation in this. As we now begin to move out of the pandemic, we’re very clear that the cultural sector has an enduring and important part to play in our recovery.

“Thanks to the determination and creativity of the MIF team and all the artists and others who are part of this year’s festival, I have no doubt that MIF21 will put Manchester back in the spotlight once more, firmly centre-stage again, leading the way as ever and showing the rest of the world what Manchester does best.”

Tickets will be on sale on from 20th May 2021 and can be purchased from mif.co.uk