Manchester Artists United

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Danny Clifford / FilmMagic / Getty

Hometown band The Happy Mondays will play the Manchester International Festival.

Marooned in the U.K.'s rain-sodden Midlands and best known for a local soccer team, Manchester has struggled to shake off its abiding image of "dark Satanic mills" first noted by the poet William Blake in his epic Jerusalem back in 1820. It's never quite been the place for picturesque holidays, much less arts festivals — until now.

Unabashed by being in London's shadow and running the risk of being compared to the competing Edinburgh 'fringe' festival, the largest annual arts symposium in the world which kicks off in August, Manchester opened its 'Manchester International Festival' on June 28, the world's "first" international arts fair comprised of wholly new works.

Twenty-five acts have been commissioned specifically for the city, hailing from countries as diverse as Cuba and China. "We're absolutely the new kid on the block, but Manchester has contributed massively to popular culture over the last 25 years," the (Scottish) festival director Alex Poots told TIME. "We thought we should build a festival about original, modern work." Keeping in the spirit of civic regeneration, the festival's line-up is a varied, multi-sensory experience. It includes ballet from Cuba's Carlos Acosta, gigs from Smokey Robinson and Kanye West, a concert adaptation of Salman Rushdie's novel The Ground Beneath her Feet and a chance to tuck into the unique culinary creations of self-styled "chemistry" chef Heston Blumenthal.

In addition, the inclusion of native band the Happy Mondays heralds a nostalgic throwback to the city's famous music scene of yore — dubbed "Madchester" on account of fans' excessive drug use — which produced such precocious talent as Joy Division, the Smiths and Oasis. It also ensures that the symposium has a distinctive local flavor: a mixture of high-art and hooliganism that is peculiarly Mancunian. Although many of the 10 major acts premiering will later tour Paris, New York, Berlin and Tokyo, local organizers are keen to stress that Manchester is a natural heir to these more established cultural loci. "We are trying to draw on Manchester's inherent creativity," said Elizabeth Dawson, a public relations manager. "It's a city of firsts."

Indeed it is. The first computer was built in Manchester and it was one of the first cities to call for both an end to the slave trade and the right of women to vote. It was also the world's first industrial city, the crucible of a revolution that went on to transform the world. But while industry has been Manchester's most enduring legacy, its decline has left the city with a reputation problem, much like such other once-mighty industrial centers as Detroit and Rotterdam. Gone were the conglomerates, manufacturers and innovators of past, replaced by derelict factories, high unemployment numbers and slow, steady rain.

But that's changing, with the festival's launch leading one critic in The Observer to christen Manchester, "the beating heart of cultural Britain." Typical of the festival's eclectic offerings was last week's opening salvo entitled "Monkey: Journey to the West," a kind of circus-opera extravaganza, with a set designed by the pop group Gorillaz. Based upon a 16th century Chinese legend of a monk and a wondering monkey, it featured a riveting score by Damon Albarn, of Blur fame, plus a troupe of Chinese acrobats and martial artists.

As residents are keen to point out, a mini-version of Edinburgh this is not. While that festival to the north, now in its 60th year, is far more established and, some say, genteel, Manchester's event is hoping to rival Edinburgh's cultural significance, all while retaining its edgier, Mancunian identity. "It's definitely going to raise Manchester's profile within certain circles," said Cinta, a local radio journalist. "We're normally known as a city of industry, not arts."