All you need to know about Abu Dhabi Festival

Promoting inclusiveness through performing arts and music are the cornerstones of the returning Abu Dhabi Festival.

Since its inception in 2004, Abu Dhabi Festival has been dedicated to bringing local, regional and international artists to the capital with several weeks of performances, exhibitions, panel discussions, educational workshops and more.

From the likes of Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli and the Lebanese National Oriental Orchestra to American jazz icon Quincy Jones, The Bolshoi Ballet & Orchestra and Globe Education at Shakespeare’s Globe – the annual classical arts event has made it possible for the public to see a diverse line-up of performers on stage.

Now in its 16th year, Abu Dhabi Festival – running throughout March – carries on the tradition of bringing together an eclectic mix of performers to entertain and promote cultural understanding within the community.

All for one and one for all

Although diversity has always been on the agenda, the latest edition of Abu Dhabi Festival takes the virtues of inclusiveness to heart – and for good reason.

With 2019 declared as the Year of Tolerance, festival organisers saw fit to incorporate the theme for its latest instalment.

Incidentally, the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 – where athletes with intellectual disabilities from all over the world will gather to compete through sports – will be hosted in Abu Dhabi the same month as the festival.

It is with this in mind that this year’s Abu Dhabi Festival carries the theme Culture of Determination as a nod to the national theme and to help increase awareness of and support people of determination.

“In April 2017, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president of the UAE, introduced the phrase ‘people of determination’ instead of the ‘disabled’, and we are inspired by the determined and their enormous ability to strive and endure,” says Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo, the festival’s artistic director.

“This year, we welcome the community to join us as we celebrate people of determination, athletes of the Special Olympics World Games and all those who carry the flame of insistent willpower and face seemingly insurmountable challenges to achieve success through sheer resolve.”

Noteworthy talent

In keeping with the theme, the line-up of performers this year includes artists whose talents outshine their physical limitations.

Leading the charge is renowned American jazz pianist Justin Kauflin who, despite losing his eyesight at an early age, chased his dream to become a musician.

Meanwhile, the special Stand Up For Inclusion concert will feature a group of Korean musicians with special needs playing classical and contemporary pop tunes. Joining the musicians for the free 90-minute concert is Grammy Award-winning soprano Sumi Jo.

Outside of the main programme, Festival in the Park will feature a play titled Mirrors of Creativity, featuring children of determination as actors.

There are also exclusive educational initiatives such as the Festival in Focus where students, including those with special needs, will be given access to meet some of the performers and watch them during rehearsals. This activity aims to develop their appreciation of music, arts and theatre, and also improve their observation skills.

Students and children of determination will also be given the chance to participate in further workshops as part of the event’s partnership with different groups including Zayed Higher Organization for Humanitarian Care and Special Needs and the Korean Cultural Centre.

Through these performances and public events, this year’s edition of Abu Dhabi Festival aims to highlight that talent and creativity are not exclusive, and that people with limitations are still very much capable of achieving great things.

“We feel a strong affinity with these inspiring people,” says Huda. “Like them, [Abu Dhabi Festival] also had to face and overcome challenges of our own to build trust with the public, the government and internationally, and that enabled us to get to where we are today.”

Something for everyone

Joining Justin Kauflin for this year’s main programme is a vibrant array of acts.

Representing the festival’s country of honour for 2019 is the Korean National Ballet with its performance of Giselle – a timeless romantic piece presented in two acts. The troupe is regarded as the first ballet company in Korea. 7th March. From AED 175. Emirates Palace. 8pm.

Making its debut in the Arab world is the Korean Symphony Orchestra. The ensemble’s 8th March performance with conductor Chi-Yong Chung and pianist Jae Hyuck Cho will feature three materials: Young Jo Lee’s Arirang Festival for Orchestra, Franz List’s Piano Concerto No.1 in E-flat Major S.124 and Antonín Dvorák’s Symphony No.8, Op.88. From AED 175. Emirates Palace. 8pm.

Expect world-class theatre on 15th March with The Art of Sir Bryn Terfel with Sinfonia Cymru, a thrilling opera set in a backdrop of love, intrigue and murder. From AED 175. Emirates Palace. 8pm.

Dramatic choreography, flamenco beats and flowing costumes will liven up the stage courtesy of Sombras by Sara Baras. The performance is in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Sara Baras Flamenco Ballet Company, with the dance routine epitomizing its founder’s colourful career spanning two decades. From AED 175. Emirates Palace. 8pm.

The Paris Opera Ballet will grace the stage for two nights of stunning performances. Jewels by George Balanchine on 29th and 30th March is a three-act ballet inspired by the jewellery designs of Claude Arpels with the music and stage movement subtly revealing the character and substance of the jewels. From AED 175. Emirates Palace. 8pm.

In the community

One of Abu Dhabi Festival’s main goals each year is to promote arts and culture through events that encourage community participation.

Families and friends can check out the Festival in the Park in Umm Al Emarat Park on 28th February and 1st March. Activities include a crafts market, arts and crafts workshops for children, marching drums workshop, a theatre performance starring children of determination, a film screening and stand-up comedy shows.

On 10th March, book lovers can visit Riwaq Al Adab Wal Kitab at Manarat Al Saadiyat to purchase new books written and signed by Emirati authors.

For art enthusiasts, the Abu Dhabi Festival Exhibition will host the Middle East debut of Distant Prospects. The free exhibit, running until 25th March at Manarat Al Saadiyat, will display works from the world-renowned Princely Collections of Liechtenstein, one of the oldest private collections in the world. The artworks show the history of European landscape painting from key figures in the Late Renaissance and Baroque artistic movements. The public can also take part in workshops and guided tours to learn more about the artworks.

Need to know

What: Abu Dhabi Festival
When: 28th Feb-30th Mar
Where: Various locations
Tickets: 800tickets.com
Visit: abudhabifestival.ae

Winning over adversity 

Justin Kauflin Trio live at the 49th Montreux Jazz Festival, (c) 2015 FFJM-Marc Ducrest

Piano extraordinaire Justin Kauflin will be performing in the capital as part of this year’s festival. A true inspiration, the talented musician rose above his blindness to become an internationally recognised jazz pianist and composer.

We chat with Justin ahead of his show to learn more about his love of jazz and music’s ability to unite people from all walks of life.

You played the violin when you were younger. What made you decide to switch to piano?

Violin was the first instrument I studied but I was always more fascinated by piano. But I was extremely grateful with the training I received from playing the violin. The wonderful things that I learned were ear training, good memorization and practicing techniques – things that are essential no matter what instrument you’re playing.

Why do you prefer jazz to classical music?

I love classical music, but I could never perform it because I make too many mistakes!

When I discovered jazz it was shortly after I had gone completely blind. I lost my sight when I was 11 and when I started to learn jazz in high school I learned that everybody that I looked up to learned by ear, so that was a wonderful thing for me because it is something that I’m good at.

It’s not to say that you can’t have personal expression playing classical music but the level of personal expression that I find in jazz, even when I’m playing somebody else’s music, is more satisfying; it allows me to share myself deeply and it’s real time so you get to share the moment with the audience together.

Why do you think music has this ability to bring people together?

I feel like there are two things that people, no matter where they come from, can agree on: food and music.

We like these experiences and they’re universal. No matter how you might be feeling, music has the power to communicate to us in a direct and powerful way.

One thing that attracted me to jazz was that even though I was blind, I never felt excluded, like I couldn’t do this. Actually, I felt like I was on even ground playing jazz music; it eliminates a lot of barriers.

No matter what’s going on, we still like to have a good time and share ourselves with others, and that’s what music gives us.

How has your style of playing changed over the years?

The way that I play is a reflection of who I am. It hasn’t changed because the things that have been important to me are feelings, emotion and spirituality – those elements have not changed.

If anything, maybe I’ve become more refined with what I’m trying to say through my music; maybe I’ve learned to say what I want to say in fewer words.

What can we expect from your upcoming show?

A lot of the music [that we’ll be playing] will come from my latest CD, Coming Home.

I like to do three things in my shows: I like to share some of my music, we like to play a few standards out of the jazz tradition and we always like to throw in things outside of jazz.

I always play something from The Beatles because I love the group, and a few other covers as well so there will be something for everyone.

It will be a lot of fun and it’s a day after my birthday so we’re going to be celebrating as well.

Justin Kauflin performs on 11th March at The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi, Saadiyat Island. From AED 52.50. 8pm. Visit: nyuad-artscenter.org

WORDS Ferdinand Godinez

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