Since the 19th century, when Manchester was a hotbed of commercial entrepreneurship and radical politics, ground-breaking stuff has been taking place in the city once known as ‘Cottonopolis’.
And for almost two centuries, the intersection of Mosley and Princess Streets has been the home of the imposing, but welcoming Manchester Art Gallery.
The great Victorian art critic and social commentator John Ruskin had a lot off about Manchester – he famously hated the place – because he saw the city as being at the forefront of an increasingly industrial and dehumanising world.
So, in the midst of all the murk and moaning of the 1800s, a small group of enlightened reformers pushed for the creation of a free public art gallery. Inspired by Ruskin, it was intended to ‘provide a refuge from the toxic effects of life and work in the industrial city – and to provide respite and moral education for the city’s working classes through exposure to beauty.’
It’s done just that – and is still very much at the centre of the most dynamic creative offerings in the North. So, with that in mind, on Saturday night I headed to the swanky M2 address – built in the Greek Revival style – for some very exclusive ‘after hours’ entertainment in the beautiful glass Atrium that connects the old and new parts of the gallery.
I had literally sprinted over the Pennines from an excellent afternoon on a Teesdale moor, hearing about Curlew from AONB experts – and also being mocked by a seven-year-old called Martha who was clear my attempt to recreate a 3D model of my favourite bird was bordering at very best on sub-standard.
Why am I telling you this? Because as I frantically tried to remove Durham mud from my trousers between the gallery’s Grecian pillars, I was challenged by a clipboard-wielding, glitzy-dress-wearing individual resembling a midway point between Aphrodite and Irene Papas. I clearly looked like I was in the wrong place, as she politely asked if she could help. But my name was on the list – and I was in.
But in what? Well if you’re Manchester – or even North West based – and you don’t know about Ember & The Vixens, you might need to have a word with yourself. Ember & her Vixens are developing a real buzz around cabaret in our part of the world – and on Saturday in partnership with the Gallery, Selina Helliwell, the theatre-maker and visionary responsible for bringing together a unique collection of artists to entertain, empower and energise audiences of growing size – orchestrated and starred in her grandest production to date, beneath a darkening Mancunian sky framed perfectly through the atrium’s glass and steel.
Over ninety discerning cabaret enthusiasts enjoyed a very special evening of Music, Spoken Word, Burlesque and Female Empowerment, courtesy of 8 very different, but equally brilliant women.
The evening’s MC was Jas Nisic – who describes herself as: ‘a working-class LGBTQA+ Actor-Singer-Songwriter and Theatre-Maker’ – but she’s much more than that. This is one Northern Powerhouse that you’d definitely want at your party. High-kicking, humorous, sweary and an amazing singer songwriter and guitarist, Ms Nisic could have entertained single-handedly all night, but instead waxed-lyrical about each of the other performers as she introduced them.
Jas has her own Quirky Cabaret heading to Manchester’s Fitzgerald on 10 May – and if there are tickets still available (there shouldn’t be) – get them quick.
First up was a young woman rocking a red beret more confidently than anyone from Airborne Forces possibly could. Joan Cooper Snark is an artist, actor and feminist comedy poet. Her material was direct and for a bloke of a certain age who’d just driven a long way – quite a wake-up. With the use of ‘props’ she related her frustrations and preferences to an audience who loved her material. I have to admit I found myself repeatedly searching the roof space for Gormley’s Filter maquette, because I wasn’t sure what else to do as Joan fired off her edgy material.
Next came Lady Wildflower, who is an internationally acclaimed Burlesque artiste and producer. She moved through the audience with the grace of a meadow of flowers. I’ll leave it there – other than to suggest you catch her when you can – and in the interim check out her website (and merch).
Bolton’s (fully clothed) poet Mary Lou Taylor brought some words that resonated with the audience – and was a perfect fit for both the event and the space, before Cherie Bebe graced the floor with her utterly entrancing and unique burlesque performance.
Cherie is famed across Manchester for her performances – often taking place in upmarket tea rooms. If you’re now thinking about cream cakes: Stop it.
The extremely talented Yemi Bolatiwa brought us a pair of songs with a voice that should definitely be heard by more and more people this year. She’s a superb performer.
The final act before the interval was leading lady Ember Travixen. Although she was technically sporting a Japanese Higasa – I felt a complete affinity with her routine, because I’ve regularly been accompanied by a posh umbrella since 1992.
After the break, Jas and the crowd welcomed back Lady Wildflower. There was renewed energy in her second performance and when she removed her brassiere, she flung it like you might throw a grenade – and predictably it hit me square. I want to believe that I fended the garment off with ninja-like reflexes, but in reality I think I took a strike to the face. If anyone has footage of this incident, please delete it – and let me have your fee.
Next came the incredibly talented poet Rebecca Kenny. The poet and publisher has a backstory that made me quickly forget that for the first time ever – a woman had thrown her bra at me.
Former English teacher Rebecca read her pieces from memory and phone – and the material should have certainly provided any man listening with food for thought. Seek her out. The woman and her work are both superb.
Jas Nisic returned with her infectious northern humour, followed by two self-penned songs, both of which were fantastic – as was her guitar playing. An ex-boyfriend might have been less impressed, but thankfully he wasn’t there to here ‘his’ song.
Cherie Bebe followed Jas with another glittering display of colour, feathers and tassels. (Where is that Gormley figure?)
Ahead of her appearance at Stockport’s ‘Moovin Festival’ this August, Yemi returned with two more tunes that had the audience moving and grooving, before Ember Travixen brought the spectacular evening to a close.
Explaining: “I’m going to do a few poems before I take my clothes off”, Ember (otherwise known as Selina), quite rightly received a room-full of audience ‘whoops’.
The first poem was a deeply moving work about women’s wellness – and the importance of ‘working on yourself’. The second poem: ‘Nip and Tuck’ was an angry poem about the objectification of women – and a feeling of disconnection from their own bodies. “The patriarchy can get f@#&$d” was the take-away line from this powerful and mood changing poem, that received the loudest and longest applause of the night.
“Choosing a song by the Revivalists for Burlesque – featuring masturbation” was a love letter to Ember’s favourite band – and wrapped up an eclectic mix of spoken word beneath a perfect starry sky. The Revivalists themselves provided the backing to Ember’s rather beautiful and heartfelt concluding performance. She’s clearly taking care of SoulFight.
Selina Hellliwell is an extremely talented creative practitioner – and a fantastic person. Her work is going to be enjoyed by bigger audiences in larger venues: so now is that moment to catch one of her productions in an intimate setting like Manchester Art Gallery.