NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Center: season three announced (and a time for some reflection)

After two busy and successful years, the team at NYU Abu Dhabi’s Arts Center is really getting into its stride. Another confident programme has been announced for the season that starts in September, broadening the geographical range (performances by artists representing more than 20 countries) while deepening the penetration into the local community (more Arabic and family-oriented programming) and extending the boundaries of performance possibilities – much multimedia, continuing The Arts Center’s commitment to work that bridges the arts and technology, and more live streaming to expand the audience beyond bums on actual seats.

In short: The Arts Center is doing exactly what an arts centre should, only more of it.

The man with the (seating) plan: Bill Bragin, photographed by Clint McLean

Talking to Bill Bragin, its personable, dynamic and highly visible Executive Artistic Director, it’s also clear that in some matters of detail the Arts Center is still evolving – which is also as it should be. “Our initial goal was in part to establish Saadiyat as a cultural destination in advance of the big launches.” Back then, two or three years ago, the Manarat was established as an exhibition space but the Louvre was a hole in the ground and the Guggenheim and Zayed National Museum were almost as far away as they are now. “In some ways The Arts Center was a proof-of-concept for Saadiyat,” says Bragin.

He doesn’t say that ruefully or regretfully: it was obviously part of the challenge, to create an arts hub on a by-road that runs off the wrong side of the highway.

So how’s that working out? The numbers tell their own story: “We’re continuing to see audiences grow. They’re one third up on last year. We’ve been fully booked for all our shows last season, but because all our shows are free it’s easy to make a booking and then not show up. We know that there will always be last-minute spaces, and we rarely have had to turn people away.”

It’s not just the captive market of the NYUAD campus, either. The split between on- and off-campus audience has improved radically. “When we started it was about 50:50, and it’s nearer 20:80 at the moment in favour of non-campus audience”.

The word is getting around: the trip to Saadiyat is worth the journey. “Mostly it’s down to word of mouth and press support – we don’t do much paid advertising,” says Bragin. “It feels like it’s growing organically.” (Disclaimer: magpie has received some advertising support from the Arts Center. Qualification: it hasn’t influenced our attitude to the Arts Center.)

[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]It feels like it’s growing organically …[/perfectpullquote]

Bill Bragin isn’t judging success purely on numbers, of course. One qualitative measure is The Arts Center’s relationship with NYUAD itself, where there’s an increasing parallel integration with the university: “the goal is to complement what the university does. We meet regularly with individual faculty members to talk about options. And some course content is being built around the artists – around [contemporary dance choreographer] Aakash Odedra, for instance.

“We’ve seen how students have incorporated their experience as audience members into their own body of work. And we’ve seen how visiting students and teachers have reacted similarly, incorporating techniques, taking inspiration – I was pleased to get a call from a local school teacher who said he had been reinvigorated as an artist by coming to one of our shows …”

The presentation options are still developing. The building is more or less complete, with the opening of the excellent Red Theatre – that joins the Black Box and a couple of exhibition-oriented rooms, plus the availability of a large performance-friendly al fresco space directly outside the front door.

“After two years’ experience we are still learning” says Bragin. “We’re still understanding the space. Could we do a full festival here in the building, for instance?”

Now that would be interesting, though in the immediate future the audience might be expanded by more live video The past year has seen the addition of live streaming for many shows, opening up performances to a larger audience which in some cases topped 20,000 viewers. There will be more of that in the third season, and there may be more live off-campus performances too. “We want to take The Arts Center beyond the building, take work to other parts of the country”.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]There was a sense of curiosity and hospitality that enabled me to express and share ideas …[/perfectpullquote]

But not by intruding on anyone else’s territory without invitation. One of the pleasant side effects of the boom in artistic life, starting from a relatively low base and growing so quickly, is that the cultural community seems keen to be collegiate rather than competitive: the more artistic endeavour the better, no matter where it’s coming from. Says Bragin: “the longer I’m here, the more I see a deeper role for the Arts Center – more and better connections with other arts enterprises in the UAE and the region”.

Abu Dhabi remains the focus, of course. It’s a city with an interesting audience, especially by comparison with Bill Bragin’s own personal and professional experience in New York. In cities like that, with a well established arts and culture scene, there’s a seen-that been-there already-dumped-the-tee-shirt weariness. The prevailing atmosphere is often one of cynicism and aggressive criticism, leavened a little by a tendency to jump on passing bandwagons.

In Abu Dhabi, by contrast, there’s a lot more openness. The sophisticated, more experienced visitor is pleased to find the kind of programming that The Arts Center delivers; but there’s also a less jaded audience that is eager to find out what’s possible, an audience that is not intimidated by work that might be regarded as edgy or avant-garde.

Aakash Odedra is a season three artist who is returning to Abu Dhabi. This is his take on it: “To come back to any place means there is a connection. We received much warmth from the people of Abu Dhabi. There was a sense of curiosity and hospitality that enabled me to express and share ideas.”

“The audience asks smart questions,” says Bill Bragin. “We don’t expect everyone to like everything we do, but we do want people to engage.”

And there will be plenty to engage you in season three.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The audience asks smart questions …[/perfectpullquote]

Bill Bragin reckons that many of the presentations this year are underpinned by a sense of how the arts can create foster greater empathy and connectedness, though whether that’s deliberate programming or the artists’ common reaction to contemporary situations is debatable. He cites theatre and dance pieces like the Toshi Reagon/Bernice Johnson Reagon opera Octavia E Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Tania el Khoury’s Gardens Speak, 600 Highwaymen’s The Fever, and Aakash Odedra Company’s #JeSuis, which “movingly address some of the crises facing the world.”

A couple of those are notable returnees. Says Bragin: “We are grateful to several extraordinary artists – Toshi Reagon, Kronos Quartet, Ragamala Dance with Amir ElSaffar, and Aakash Odedra Company – who have chosen to return to NYU Abu Dhabi. This deepening relationship with the artists underscores the role of The Arts Center as a place that supports the creation of innovative new work.”

The first ensemble choreography by Aakash Odedra, #JeSuis, will have its world premiere at The Arts Center in February. “It’s gratifying that artists are choosing to premiere new work at the Arts Center”, says Bragin. “It’s a validation of our audiences, our facilities, the whole experience of the Arts Center.”

And Odedra – whose first-year solo show was a particular highlight for us – described the offer of facility, time, and resources as “a great honour” which offers “a safe haven to take artistic risk and develop a story”.

“For any venue to be hosting a world premiere to an artist means they share this journey of discovery with you, and that feels special.”

Compagnie Käfig: PIXEL

The season kicks off in September with the UAE debut of Compagnie Käfig and PIXEL. Created in 2014 and seen now in around 100 different cities around the world, PIXEL is a mind-blowing mix of virtuoso hip-hop dance choreographed by the extraordinary Mourad Merzouki, with cutting-edge digital projection by Adrien Mondot and Claire Bardainne.

It has wowed audiences and critics alike – “plaisir direct, émerveillement sans condition” enthused Le Monde; “c’est magique, c’est captivant! Toutes les limites disparaissent, tout devient possible sur scène!” said another review. Here’s a sample.

Maysoon Zayid

A week later we get Arabic and English stand-up comedy from Maysoon Zayid, making her Abu Dhabi Debut. She described herself in a BBC interview as “a Palestinian Muslim virgin with cerebral palsy, from New Jersey, who is an actress, comedian and activist”. Which gives a neat flavour of her self-deprecating but often pointed comedy, and probably needs updating too (she now has a husband who comes from a Palestinian refugee camp – “he’s a chef and a refugee. A chefugee!” – and a nine-year-old daughter).

A line from her brilliant TED Talk is equally relevant: “If there was an Oppression Olympics, I would win the gold medal. I’m Palestinian, Muslim, I’m female, I’m disabled, and I live in New Jersey”. She also started the New York Arab American Comedy Festival after 9/11 to combat the negative image of Muslims in the media, was the first ever female comic to perform in Palestine and Jordan, tweets and retweets enthusiastically, and co-owns a vegan food truck (with her chefugee husband). This is her 2013 TED talk; add to the 8.5m views.

Compagnia TPO: Farfalle

September winds up with Italy’s Compagnia TPO and Farfalle, another established dance programme that is coming to the UAE for the first time. Two dancers move, play and paint in the air, telling the story of the slow metamorphosis of the butterfly (‘farfalle’ translates as ‘butterflies’). TPO’s ‘theatre of the senses’ weaves dance, storytelling, and visual experience into a magical hands-on performance like nothing you’ve seen before; no matter your age, you will immediately feel a sense of wonder and joy in this magical world. The audience gets to enter the performance and interact with the beautiful, immersive world created on stage. One for all the family. See what you’ll be getting here.

In November comes the Middle East premiere of The Fever, a participatory theatre experience with 600 Highwaymen. There aren’t 600 of them, of course; the label covers Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, who have been making theatre together since 2009. The Fever (seen at the head of this piece) aims to test the limits of individual and collective responsibility, and our willingness to be there for one another – fiercely relevant at this time and in this place. The New York Times loved it: “The Fever seeks to break down those unseen walls we all put up around us, to acknowledge that we are all here. Together. Now …” Essential stuff.

Next year sees the Kronos Quartet with three different performances in The Red Theater. One features music from Fifty for the Future, co-commissioned by The Arts Center; as a complete (but entirely typical) contrast there’s Around the World, a family-friendly celebration featuring Kronos performing with special guests from musical traditions around the globe; and the residency winds up with the Middle East premiere of A Thousand Thoughts: a Live Documentary by Sam Green and Kronos Quartet, again co-commissioned by The Arts Center – part performance piece, part multimedia experience, with video, narration and live music. Kronos never disappoints, and there will be something for everyone here.

At the end of April The Arts Center hosts the Middle East Premiere of Tania El Khoury’s Gardens Speak. This is micro-theatre, an interactive sound installation containing the oral histories of ten ordinary people who were buried in Syrian gardens. Each narrative has been carefully constructed with the friends and family members of the deceased to retell their stories as they themselves may have recounted it. They are compiled with found audio that evidences their final moments. The New York Times called it “a stark, moving theatre piece [that] brings us into painful intimacy with the human cost of the war”; “this piece will change the way you think,” said the What’s on Stage review in London.

And there’s more, much more. In addition to performances, educational outreach is a core part of The Arts Center’s work. During their residencies at NYU Abu Dhabi, artists become part of the university curriculum by visiting classes, leading public skills-building workshops and master classes, taking part in knowledge-building artist talks and Q&A’s to provide audiences with deeper context about the work, and helping build community at artist welcome dinners. The Arts Center also helps develop the next generation of arts enthusiasts through invited performances and open rehearsals for students.

Plus there’s the regulars – monthly Rooftop Rhythms, World Music at the Barzakh Festival in March along with the Imagine Science Abu Dhabi Film Festival, and a student production of The Aeneid.

The third season at The Arts Center is another meaty artistic feast, food for the mind and soul with something happening just about every other week. We’re lucky to have such sustenance.

There’s more information here. Tickets are always free; for most events, reservations will be available around two weeks before.


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