Why the arts are powerful for bringing people together

What role does the arts play in creating a community? And how does an education institute fit into it?

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What makes a community? Is it in physical structures? Is it about the people? The sharing of spaces? Or perhaps, it’s an amalgamation of all of the above.

There may not be a right answer to the question, but over the years, The Arts Center at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) has sought to create a community in Abu Dhabi through its performing arts programme. With each new season of live performances and events comes a chance to experience the arts in its various formats – dance, theatre, film, poetry, music. It’s also seen a new community emerge, one eager to experience something new, learn about other cultures, meet like-minded people and serve as a platform for discussion.

Now, as the fourth season prepares to kick off on 5th September with a revival of DANCE by Lucinda Childs – more on that later – it’s a chance for more people to join the growing community.

“More than anything, this season is about excellence,” explains Bill Bragin, director of The Arts Center. “We have some extraordinary artists who are presenting works – some of which have been around for a while – that we felt would really open up conversations in the UAE about what’s possible [in the arts].

“Like in many years, there’s also a fair deal of new work and work that we’ve commissioned, and we look to bring work that feels relevant locally and regionally.

“I think a lot about community and how the work that we bring can bring different communities together and create a common experience that can also be a part of larger conversations – conversations about art and science, for example,” he continues. “We want people to recognise that the arts exist in dialogue with all these other fields and conversations.”

If you’re not familiar with what the season is all about, you can expect a colourful programme of live performances from international and local talent coupled with activities for aspiring artists and the culturally curious.

With events scheduled until April next year, there is something for everyone, from interactive family theatre to electronic dance music and works celebrating Emirati heritage.

Chances are, you haven’t heard of the majority of the performers, but that’s all part of the fun.

“It feels obvious to me that the shows are entertaining, they’re not work” Bill laughs. ”Sometimes they ask you to step into the unknown, but they’re fun and transformative.”

The line-up

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With a total of 83 shows, 22 artist residencies and nearly 150 Off the Stage events planned throughout the season, there’s plenty to sink your teeth into.

Following DANCE on opening weekend, it’s an audio-visual double-bill from Lebanon’s Love and Revenge, featuring Arab electro-pop, and Canada’s A Tribe Called Red, starring powwow step inspired by indigenous First Nations music. Following that is Gatz, an eight-hour play inspired by a classic American novel. September wraps up with the season seven debut of community open-mic poetry series, Rooftop Rhythms.

“I think September alone is an introduction to everything we do,” Bill explains. “This month is such a strong statement, because we’ve got artists who are really pushing and pulling at their forms.”

But this is only the beginning. Future performances include a musical show inspired by the Arabic concept of jinn, or ‘invisible beings’, a global music festival featuring Egyptian, Sudanese and Nigerian artists, an opera by school students in celebration of the Year of Zayed, an interactive playground for children and families and much more.

Off the Stage

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These live performances are only half of what this season is all about – literally. Twice as much of the season is actually the Off the Stage series, a programme of activities encompassing workshops, masterclasses, classroom visits and post-show Q&As.

It’s a way for anyone who wants to be involved in the arts industry – actors, dancers, producers – to network, learn from the artists in residence and create a career path.

“When we first created the program, it was important [to establish] that it’s not just about the show,” Bill notes. “We’re a teaching institution and we’re not just here for the students at NYUAD, but we’re here for all of the UAE.

“A great performance on stage often looks effortless and the distance between the stage and the audience creates a barrier. Here you have the opportunity to hear the artists talk about all of the thinking, experimentation, risks and failures. All of that makes it a deeper experience.”

Celebrating differences

As always, the season line-up is a brilliant reflection of the city’s population: diverse, vibrant, international.

“I think that’s why some of the work tends to be so cross-cultural,” Bill acknowledges. “Part of it is to find things that are going to resonate, so even if it’s work that is coming from a specific cultural point of view, the idea is that it opens up the conversation to people from across the community.

“We see a lot of people who come week after week, month after month, looking for different shows that aren’t necessarily representing their own cultural heritage. I think that, because people are coming with so many different backgrounds and experiences, having the arts centre and those performances builds community, because it becomes a part of people’s shared history.”

A new pointe of view

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When choreographer Lucinda Childs first presented DANCE in 1979, it was considered radical. An original piece of work, it was a multimedia collaboration by three of New York’s most pioneering artists.

Teaming up with minimalist composer Philip Glass and visual artist Sol Le Witt, Childs created a piece that featured a floating video of dancers over a live performance where
the dancers became the décor.

“[Le Witt’s] idea to move into the territory of film was an exciting one,” Lucinda tells us. “Anybody could do a film of dancers, but he did enormously complex editing, using split layers, dancing on different levels and moving above and round.”

It may seem like a simple concept now, but 40 years ago, it was considered controversial.

“People were shocked that the dancers never touched each other – everything is very abstract and women and men were dressed alike,” Lucinda recalls. “Some people didn’t think it was dance, and that it was so strange compared to what you’d normally see. In ballet, there’s usually a narrative or a relationship. Back then, this was a shock for a lot of people, but now, it’s seen as a classic – that’s kind of funny.”

Today, as the piece has been revived with a restoration of Le Witt’s work, it’s not only new audiences who are experiencing the show, but also new dancers taking to the stage.

“These are completely different dancers with completely different backgrounds from the ones in the 70s and there are stylistic things that are different now,” Lucinda explains. “That’s inevitable when you revive any work; the dancers bring to it a style that is their own and not necessarily imitating one from years ago. You don’t necessarily see those things simultaneously, because you see the dancers from that period and the dancers of today, and everybody can understand.

“I hope that audiences can get past the content, the dance vocabulary and see what’s being done. Certain things come back in a different way – that’s what happens with the music as well. Things are repeated but never quite in the same way, and I love the poetic aspect of that.”

DANCE by Lucinda Childs shows on 5th and 6th September. Tickets AED 105, half price for students.

Become a member

For the first time, The Arts Center is offering an annual membership for the community. With packages available from AED 750 for a single membership to AED 2,100 for a family, you can go to an unlimited number of shows as well as benefit from early ticket booking. Limited availability. Visit: nyuad-artscenter.org/en_us/memberships

Need to know
What: Season 4 of NYUAD’s performing arts programme
When: Various dates between 5th September, 2018 and 25th April, 2019
Where: The Arts Center, New York University Abu Dhabi, Saadiyat Island
Tickets: Prices vary
Visit: nyuad-artscenter.org

WORDS Rachael Perrett

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