Entertainment & Arts

A catwalk show with real people instead of models - and it was beautiful

What Is The City But The People, Manchester Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption About 150 people from all backgrounds and walks of life strutted their stuff

Four-day-old James is carried along the catwalk to meet the world for the first time.

Ninety-nine-year-old Mickie, who drove army trucks during World War Two, makes her way up the runway with a walking stick.

Stefan, the bearded The Big Issue North seller from Manchester Victoria station, slowly twirls and waves as he goes.

Helen, who's had cancer and a drink problem, pauses at the end, tilting her head to look to the sky.

This is no ordinary catwalk, and these aren't ordinary models.

They're real people who are walking a catwalk in the middle of Manchester to create a live "self-portrait of the city" - an idea dreamed up by artist Jeremy Deller.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image copyright Getty Images

It's a simple idea. A platform that normally celebrates superficial appearance is instead used to celebrate the everyday brilliance and resilience of the people of the city.

And it's more beautiful than any fashion show. Beautiful, heartwarming and life-affirming.

About 150 people walk the 100m yellow runway while the gathered crowds - maybe a couple of thousand - read snippets about their life stories on the screens.

There's Chris, who's been in Strangeways prison. He's beaming with a fist in the air like a rock star.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image copyright Getty Images

There's Kate, who was christened Andrew; trainee doctor Sermed; Wajid, who's had a kidney transplant; Vincenzo, who cleans the town hall; Jehona, who saw 19 members of her family killed in Kosovo and was herself left for dead.

There are two taxi drivers who turned their meters off to give stranded Ariana Grande fans free lifts home on the night of the Manchester Arena attack.

There's Bruce, who waits at the end of the catwalk for his blind date. A few minutes later, Frankie emerges, and they smile broadly and embrace in the middle before departing for their date.

It could be the start of something special.

As each new person is applauded - literally - for being themselves, whatever form that takes, this joyful parade becomes surprisingly moving.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image copyright Getty Images

While this alternative catwalk show was planned long before last month's Manchester Arena attack, that incident - and the emotions it stirred - make this more potent.

Titled What Is The City But The People?, it's the opening event of the Manchester International Festival, the city's biennial arts festival.

Lots of people here probably wouldn't think of 150 men, woman and children (and some dogs) walking up and down a walkway as art.

But it took an artist and an arts festival to make it happen. And it's often only artists who have the licence to make us stop, see things we hadn't spotted before, and hit us where we feel it most.

The simplicity and beauty of this event puts Jeremy Deller up there as the king of great ideas that reach into our lives and touch us.

He's the man behind the acid house brass band, the re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave, the bouncy Stonehenge and the Manchester Procession, a previous parade that featured tribes like smokers, ramblers, buskers and Big Issue Sellers.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The idea for the catwalk event came from Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller

Perhaps his greatest stroke was the poignant 2016 Battle of the Somme commemoration project that saw actors dressed as ghostly World War One soldiers turn up in towns and cities across the UK.

With respect to David Hockney, Grayson Perry and Banksy, Deller might be Britain's best living artist.

His Procession was part of the 2009 Manchester International Festival. Since then, there's been criticism that the festival has been too much about the international artists who land every two years and not enough about Manchester.

What Is The City But The People? was a clear attempt by the new artistic director John McGrath to reconnect the festival with the city.

While the crowd was a small fraction of Manchester's population, it succeeded.

It will make people pause to think more about those they encounter on the city's streets. About the stories beneath the surface. That they are all real people.

More cities should have a catwalk like it.

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