Tolerance and human connection are at the heart of NYUAD’s new performing arts season that aims to bring the Abu Dhabi community together
If you haven’t been to any of the events hosted as part of New York University Abu Dhabi’s (NYUAD) performing arts season, you may not understand what all the hype is about.
When The Arts Center at the university kicked off its season of events two years ago, it brought with it a line-up of performances from artists across the world that most of us hadn’t heard of. While most established events in Abu Dhabi focused on classical genres by established international artists, NYUAD went out on a limb to offer something we’d never seen before, and in the process encouraged art lovers and cultural newbies alike to take a chance on something new.
The gamble seems to have paid off, as over 35,000 fans attended performances last year. And now, The Arts Center is about to kick off its third season from September to April, with a slew of events crammed into the weeks and months in between. From Pixel, a contemporary dance amongst digital projections, and Maysoon Zayid, an Arab comedienne with cerebral palsy, to an Indian board game dance with Ragamala Dance Company, this season is shaping up to be just like previous years: a colourful amalgamation of weird and wonderful artistic expression that celebrates the spirit of inclusion.
The art of empathy
While artistic director and programme curator Bill Bragin says he has no theme in mind going into a new season, he admits that collective traits started to emerge as he secured artists for the programme. This year’s events share common themes of inclusion, empathy and tolerance.
“I think it’s on everybody’s minds everywhere in the world that we’re living in times of great conflict, and there’s a big push to create a greater spirit of empathy and human connection as a way to bring greater tolerance and understanding,” Bill tells us.
“I realised that a lot of the work that I was responding to was speaking to those themes. So in the case of Parable of the Sower, the protagonist has a condition of hyper-empathy, so she really takes on all the emotions of the people around her. That’s something that came up again in Akash Odedra Company’s #JeSuis, with that question of whose suffering rises to the level of a hashtag, and what kinds of global issues bring general community concern.
“And when I saw 600 Highway Men – The Fever in New York in January, that really touched an emotional chord. It’s a very beautiful devised theatre piece that’s all about literally bringing the audience together to engage in a performance, and that question about what can cause a community to come together and become active participants in caring for one another.
“And I think ultimately when you talk about the UAE’s creation of a ministry of tolerance or what you’re seeing in all corners of the world right now, that question of civic responsibility and human caring is a really important conversation to have right now,” Bill continues.
“I think that one of the things that’s very important to us is the idea that arts don’t exist in isolation, they become a lend in to larger civic conversation and that’s a conversation that the UAE is having very deeply right now, as they are in the US, UK, Brazil, Turkey, and all throughout West Africa. That’s important because we know that we have audience members who don’t necessarily have experience seeing contemporary theatre or modern dance, but by seeing these kinds of works it will connect these things that are on their mind.”
Outside of the main programme of events, the season includes Off the Stage, a series of activities that will comprise educational outreach initiatives, open rehearsals, skills-building workshops and Q&As, to help bridge the gap between artist, audience and student in an effort to create a deeper understanding of the context of work.
“The public performances are just one fraction of what we’re doing,” Bill explains. “Our goal is to really build a performing arts culture in Abu Dhabi in general so all these other activities are not to the side of what we do, they’re a core part of what we do, which is about building the skills, capacity and knowledge of our audiences, and building a community around the arts.”
Kicking off the season on 7th September is a dance troupe from Compagnie Käfig performing Pixel, a dazzling performance using cutting-edge digital productions that result in a show that blurs the line between reality and reveries.
After being asked by the organisers of RVBn, a French festival of digital arts, in 2013, to create a performance that combined dance and new technology, Pixel’s artistic director and choreographer Mourad Merzouki began exploring how dancers could interact with visual effects in space and movements.
“In this work I tried a new connection using technology with and for dance,” Mourad tells us. “I wanted to open up the way where the synthetic world of digital projection would interact with the dancer’s reality. Each artist has playfully immersed in an unknown world, relying on hip-hop virtuosity and energy, mixing up poetry and dreams.”
For the show’s performers, Pixel proved to be an unusual concept that Mourad admits they found odd at first.
“All the pixels projected on stage shook up the connection of the dancers with the space,” he says, “It was very unsettling for them as they lost their landmarks in the space and could even lose their balance when they did acrobatic figures. It required intense concentration and a lot of patience.Since they do not see the same projections on stage, they also had to take some distance and take the spectator’s point of view to truly understand how they had to react to the pixels.”
While the concept of incorporating new technology into dance isn’t new, Mourad explains that his immersive creation is all part of the constant evolution of various art forms, not only dance.
“Today, we see a lot of shows where video has a purely ‘decorative’ role. It was precisely the risk of this creation, and the challenge I took up.
“For Pixel, I selected only the 3D projections that could add depth to the dance, and not flatten it. Beyond the use of technology, the show keeps an important and necessary part of humanity, as I tried to keep a real balance between the bodies and the digital projections on stage.
“I am convinced that it is important to look for the positive aspects of our time. The waves of technology open up new interesting possibilities; we have to grasp the opportunity to make good use of it,” Mourad continues.
“Pixel is not a conceptual piece, besides searching for a balance between the real and the virtual worlds, in echo with such questionings that could be raised in our everyday life. But Pixel is mainly a piece aimed at making the audience travel and dream. Anyone can create its own message and story from what you see on stage.
Pixel: In what Bill describes as a “striking” performance, Pixel combines interactive media and video with hip-hop dance. 7th-8th Sep. Don’t miss the hip-hop dance masterclass on 6th at 7pm and the pre-show talk on 7th at 7pm.
Toshi ReAgon: If you missed this bubbly singer’s show at the inaugural season, then now’s your chance to catch the acclaimed singer, accompanied by her BIGLovely band, for an outdoor concert on 2nd November. She then presents her opera based on Octavia Butler’s post-apocalyptic novel, Parable of the Sower, from 9th to 11th November.
CinemaNA: Arab Cinema takes the spotlight with this series presented in partnership with The Arts Center at NYUAD and Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi. From 16th October to 8th November, catch a handful of films including Blessed Benefit and When Monaliza Smiled, as well as filmmaking workshops with established directors. Dates and venues vary.
Compagnia TPO – Farfalle:
Great for children and families, this interactive performance will see dancers paint on air in a colourful environment of music and digital images that children can play among.
28th Sep-1st Oct and 5th-7th Oct.
600 Highway Men – The Fever: This creative, interactive performance fully relies on audience participation for an examination of human connection and disconnection. 24th-26th and 28th Nov.
#Jesuis: Addressing the relevant topic of life in conflict, award-winning British dancer Aakash Odedra created this show with Turkish dancers as a way of exploring the concept people in society who are portrayed by the media as unwanted neighbours, and a world where death is a daily occurrence. 7th-9th Feb.
Ragamala Dance Company – Written in Water: This dance show, co-commissioned by NYUAD, explores the Indian board game Paramapadam, an early version of Snakes & Ladders, as well as the 12th century Sufi poem, ‘The Conference of the Birds’, with large-scale projections of original paintings interspersed with the choreography. 21st and 22nd March.
More events are due to be added. Registration for tickets opens up to two weeks before each show. For a schedule and ticket information, visit: nyuad-artscenter.org