The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi has opened its third season with another serving of meaty information. There was a stunning opener last week in the form of Compagnie Käfig’s urban dance-plus-video fizzer PIXEL; the completion of The Arts Center’s performance space portfolio; a couple of late additions that add even more lustre to the programme; and the news that The Arts Center is amending its free-for-all policy.
One important development is that The Arts Center is now fully open – all of its performance spaces are now available.
The original one is The Black Box, a very flexible venue with a broad range of configuration options for audiences of 150 to 300 depending on layout. The East Plaza directly outside the Art Center’s doors provides for al fresco shows like all-standing festival-style concerts with a capacity of 1,000.
And there’s also the 150 capacity Blue Hall, a classic space for chamber recitals and the like (but not just for them); and the 700-seat Red Theater, a fully equipped proscenium theatre.
As Bill Bragin said to us: “We have a variety of world class venues which can ably host a broad range of projects. It’s like being a painter – we now have many more colours in the palette with which to create.
So, Bill, what exactly does the addition of The Red Theatre mean for The Arts Center?
A lot, it seems. “The Red Theater is a unique venue for the UAE – a proscenium fly house (meaning the space above the stage doubles the height of the stage so you can have sets that ‘fly’ in and out). It’s the only proper fly house in Abu Dhabi, and one of only two in the country (the other is Dubai Opera).
“Having a fly house, digital and 35mm projection and surround sound for cinema, fantastic repertory lighting and rigging, excellent sightlines, adjustable acoustics and an intimate capacity means that we can present large scale work – theatre, dance, music, film with live elements – while allowing curators to take artistic chances with less well known artists alongside global stars like Maysoon Zayid [13-14 September] and Kronos Quartet [February 2018]. We can present theatre pieces with full stage sets, dance with interactive projection, and so on. We also have an adjustable orchestra pit that can also be raised to audience level for additional seating, or to stage level to serve as a stage extension and bring the performers closer to the audience.
“At 700 seats, it’s a very different size to the opera house, and offers a relatively intimate complement to larger venues in town like Emirates Palace and the National Theatre. It has world-class sound and lights, great sight lines, comfortable seating.
“What the audience experiences when they enter is a combination of both grand scale and intimacy. The stage could accommodate a Broadway style musical or full symphony orchestra as well as a contemporary dance company, a play, or a concert by a Bhangra brass band.
“At the same time, it feels quite intimate. From the stage, the performers can see nearly every person in the audience, creating a special relationship that performers have already remarked on”.
But The Red Theater isn’t just for conventionally staged shows with technical presentation and a sizable audience seated in front of the stage. “The additional capacity can be helpful. But it’s not the whole point.
“For pieces like Octavia E Butler’s Parable of the Sower by Toshi Reagon [November, right] and Ragamala Dance’s Written in Water [March 2018], both of which had been developed in part in The Black Box, the staging and set design require the larger scale and the larger stage picture that The Red Theater allows.
“But for 600 Highwaymen’s The Fever [November], we’ll have an audience of 80 people on the stage of The Red Theater. The Fever is an intimate devised theatre piece about the importance of community participation; the idea is that people can’t simply be passive observers in their lives or their communities. At some point, they will be called upon to act and engage. Presenting the piece on the stage becomes a great metaphor, and almost treats the theatre as a site-specific space.”
That versatility, the ability to find the right environment for the particular show and to match each piece carefully to a venue, is key to Bill Bragin’s vision of how The Arts Center works. “When I first arrived, some people referred to The Red Theater as the ‘Main Stage’ and The Blue Hall was known as the ‘Recital Hall’ [guilty as charged – Ed]. It was important to me that we take away those biases in the names. ‘Main Stage’ implies that because the audience is larger, the show is somehow more important.
“But some work is intended to be seen in a more intimate setting. Gardens Speak [April 2018] by Tania el Khoury is intended for an audience of only 10 people at one time. It will be a very profound experience that is quite personal, and isn’t about being in a large crowd. Of course, we’ll have to offer several dozen performances to meet the expected demand.
“Similarly, while The Blue Hall is unrivalled in the UAE in terms of venues for acoustic chamber music, we also use it for film, artist talks, and so on. ‘Recital Hall’ just felt too limiting – and too biased towards classical music, which is just a part of what it will host.
“For example, last year, oudist Driss el Maloumi and slide guitarist Debashish Bhattachrya used The Blue Hall to develop their commissioned collaboration; we then presented it outdoors in the East Plaza, which we set up as a seated venue.
“Having multiple venues each with their own layouts, aesthetics, and capacities certainly gives the kind of flexibility that any arts centre would appreciate. It also allows us to have one theatre being used for the development of new work while another is being used for performance.”
This year there will be ticket charges for shows, with some remaining complimentary. Originally there was a sense that free access to high-quality boundary-stretching performance was an important part of the remit of the newly established university and its Arts Center, a civic duty that would also maximise the audiences.
But the Arts Center is now established as part of the UAE’s cultural landscape; the winning of hearts and minds has been done.
And there’s a basic practical problem with free admission: you don’t know how many seats you’re going to fill. Even if you require an RSVP or a ticket application in advance, there’s always going to be a number of speculative may-as-well bookings that aren’t taken up.
The official word is that charging admission will “support The Arts Center in bringing exceptional performing arts programming to its audiences, as well as the development of new works by emerging artists … This will enable the Arts Center to continue investing in the kind of world-class programmes the audiences of the UAE have come to expect, and to provide for the long-term sustainability of the programme, while maintaining the highest standards of artistry”.
So some income will offset the costs of running that impressive schedule. Ticket charging will also help the Arts Center gauge its success more accurately; even though bums on seats is no measure of artistic success, it’s a useful metric to inform future programming.
“We were pleased to be able to offer complimentary admission during the inaugural two seasons in order to introduce the wide range of contemporary arts offerings to audiences of all backgrounds,” said Artistic Director Bill Bragin. “We are thrilled by how quickly The Arts Center has been embraced as a major new UAE cultural institution and trust that audience support through ticket purchases will help to position The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi for continued success.”
At press time there was no word on which performances would be charged for, though some seats will definitely still be free.
Now read on
In its third year, it’s fair to say that The Arts Center has added credibility as well as versatility with its performance venues as well as its programming. Bill Bragin is modest about The Arts Center’s achievements, but he does think that its artistic programme rivals that of any contemporary performing arts centre “anywhere in the world”.
“We are co-commissioning work and presenting the same artists and some of the same pieces as appear on the most recognised stages in the world. Increasingly, as artists who have performed here travel and share their experiences, The Arts Center’s reputation and credibility will continue to grow. I’m already seeing more and more artists pitching us to bring their work here.
“That is a fantastic position to be in, though I wish the year had more days …”
|More shows next year|
|Heather Raffo’s Noura makes its Middle East debut [May 2018], a play inspired by Ibsen’s A Doll’s House that harnesses themes of inclusion and the meaning of ‘home’ through the eyes of Iraqi immigrants in New York. Read more here|
|Angélique Kidjo’s Remain in Light [February 2018] reworks the classic 1980 Talking Heads album in a performance with electrifying rhythms, African guitars, layered backing vocals and a large, funky band. Read more here|
|Batida and Al Nuban have been added to the roster for the Barakh Festival [March 2018]. Batida is the stage name of Pedro Coquenão, a radio, video and music producer from Angola; expect smart electronic dance music plus more rooted Angolan sounds with video, theatrical dance and homemade instruments. The Al Nuban Folklore Troupe preserve an Afro-Emirati tradition with nearly 20 dancers, accompanied by a tanboura, drums, manjour, and call and response vocals. Read more here|