Abu Dhabi Festival 2021: knitting a patchwork of projects into a brighter future

The Abu Dhabi Festival, which describes itself – perhaps contentiously – as “the region’s leading celebration of creativity and the arts”, is back for its 18th edition.

ADF 2021 runs more or less throughout the year with a Covid-compliant hybrid programme of virtual and in-person performances, exhibitions and events – including 16 world premieres, a dozen festival productions and eight co-productions, and four creative commissions. The Abu Dhabi Festival 2021 doesn’t just happen in Abu Dhabi, though live streaming and subsequent online availabilities mean that the geographical boundaries count for less.

Playing on a theme

The direct commissions are noteworthy, but it’s a bit of a stretch to say that all of the events listed in the ADF programme are truly part of the Festival in the sense that they relate to a specific theme. In fact, several are opportunistic projects that were looking for funding and ADF turns out to be (selectively) a generous contributor. At least they’re happening, and for most of them it’s clear that this is A Good Thing.

Choosing a theme for an arts festival – or indeed any kind of festival – is a tricky business. The theme should be a solid idea or concept (or slogan, if you must) that signals the basis of the enterprise, provides a common point of cohesion, gives it a unique identity, and at least hints at what it’s all about. In the case of arts festivals, it’s also pretty much de rigeur that the theme should not be too obvious; without being too baffling, the theme should encourage the observer to stop and think, to interpret, and so in a small way to start contributing to the festival.

The theme for ADF 2021 is The Future Starts Now, which might be explicit but is clearly self-fulfilling and conveniently broad enough to encompass just about anything you might want it to.

Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo (right), the Abu Dhabi Festival’s artistic director and the founder of ADMAF, the semi-official NGO responsible for it, feels a motivational obligation: “now, more than ever, the community must come together to cultivate hope, spark creativity and nurture innovation through culture and the arts … This edition will reaffirm the role the arts play in bringing humanity together in challenging times … Supporting the arts in this present moment will culminate in a brighter future for all of us”.

Of course we all want to cultivate hope, spark creativity and nurture innovation. This time, it seems, the festival “will inspire established and emerging artists alike to bring new creations into being, to exchange ideas and experiences, and to cultivate resilience in the face of difficulties”. These are lofty ambitions against which the Festival’s content should be measured.

The diplomatic approach

The theme may be a tad generic (“today is the first day of the rest of your life”) but the stated goal of the Abu Dhabi Festival is actually a bit more specific: “to further Abu Dhabi as a cultural hub and foster cultural diplomacy between the UAE and the world”.

Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo has always seen ‘cultural diplomacy’ as a key function of the Festival. She’s received many international awards as a philanthropist with a special interest in the arts, especially music, and she clear sees an important role for the festival in using what the website terms the exchange of “ideas, values, traditions and other aspects of culture or identity” to “strengthen relationships, enhance socio-cultural cooperation, promote national interests and beyond”.

There’s a danger that this kind of soft power approach translates into distributing largesse in return for a logo on the recipient’s website. The official line is that the Abu Dhabi Festival “will inspire established and emerging artists alike to bring new creations into being, to exchange ideas and experiences, and to cultivate resilience in the face of difficulties”.

But the “exchange of ideas” might mean ideas coming one way while money flows the other. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that – redistribution of ideas is as important as redistribution of wealth – it does downplay the opportunities.

Most obviously, a lot of the Abu Dhabi Festival doesn’t take place in Abu Dhabi, so the people of Abu Dhabi don’t get the chance to share in the exchange of ideas.

And most of the artistically important festival co-productions and out-of-Abu-Dhabi commissions do not draw on UAE culture. The New York based Emirati composer Mohammed Fairouz was apparently inspired by the life of Sheikh Zayed for his Fifth Symphony, to be premiered in London with the LSO, but that’s about it. The activities that do relate to the country – in particular, the emphasis on the oud with concerts and a festival-within-the-festival – are not offered for live export. Specific encouragement for UAE artists is limited to a concert for Riad Kudsi’s Emirates Youth Symphony Orchestra, an admirable enterprise but not exactly unique in seeking to develop a homegrown cultural environment.

Getting with the programme

Enough of the caveats. The programme is available on the website. It doesn’t currently have dates attached to it, but it falls into these three broad categories:


ABT Today: The Future Starts Now Already available online World Premiere. An online performance by American Ballet Theatre (co-produced with ABT) of four new works, created and filmed in quarantined ‘ballet bubbles’. There’s an eponymous solo for Principal Dancer David Hallberg, created by Pam Tanowitz; Convivium, Gemma Bond’s second work for ABT; Touché, a new dance by Christopher Rudd depicting male love (yikes); and Indestructible Light, a celebratory work by Darrell Grand Moultrie set to selections from Duke Ellington’s music. The works are currently available to view here in a single video.

Ihab Darwish: Hekayat – Symphonic Tales February 2021 Abu Dhabi World Premiere. The Emirati composer promises a creative journey through the UAE’s values with a multi-genre set of performers. With the Beethoven Academy Orchestra from Krakow (conductor Tomasz Tokarczyk), JoseåL Cura (tenor), Sara Andon (flute), Kodō (percussion), Carlos Pinana (guitar) and others. An ADF commission.

Naseer Shamma: Al Hayat February/March 2021 Abu Dhabi World Premiere. Composed and performed by oud master Shamma (below) with an ensemble of Arab musicians as “an inspiring message of hope that humanity will continue through even the most difficult challenges”. An ADF commission.

Global Oud Forum February/March 2021 Abu Dhabi A festival within the festival, organised and curated by Naseer Shamma and featuring more than 30 of the world’s most accomplished oud musicians in performances, talks and workshops.

Omar Kamal 1 Mar 2021 Manama; 22 May 2021 New York The honey-voiced Palestinian Frank Sinatra mixes easy listening jazz with Arabic folk songs on his world tour. The Abu Dhabi festival is a co-sponsor (though not apparently for his gig at Dubai Opera on 12 December, which seems to be part of the same tour).

Nicola Benedetti: Story of the Violin Spring 2021 London World Premiere (filmed concert). The acclaimed Scottish violinist (left) celebrates her instrument via music by Biber, Bach, Paganini, Ysaÿe and Wynton Marsalis; we think this is an extension of her excellent Global Violin Sessions programme which passes a Marsalis tune between different soloists around the world, allowing them to interpret and adapt … A co-production with her music education charity the Benedetti Foundation.

Mohamed Briouel and Kudsi Erguner: Arab-Andalusian and Fasl Encounter June 2021 Brussels World Premiere. Mohamed Briouel (upright Arabic-style violin) and Kudsi Erguner (Turkish ney flute) – two masters of the classical music traditions and Sufi influence of their respective homelands in Morocco and Turkey. A co-production with BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels.

Samir Odeh-Tamimi: L’Apocalypse Arabe July 2021 Arles World Premiere. Based on the poems of the Lebanese-American poet and artist Etel Adnan, with composition and libretto by the innovative avant-garde Palestinian-Israeli composer Samir Odeh-Tamimi. Directed by Pierre Audi, with music by Ensemble Modern (conductor Ivan Volkov), this is a co-production with Festival Aix-en-Provence and the LUMA Foundation.

Tarek Yamani and Spektral Quartet Fall 2021 Ann Arbor World Premiere (top). The award-winning composer, jazz pianist and magpie favourite performs with the Chicago-based string ensemble in a co-production with the U of Michigan’s University Musical Society (where Spektral are artists-in-residence). They have worked together before – check out the UMS YouTube channel for an interesting hour of musical exploration.

Mohammed Fairouz: Fifth Symphony October 2021 London World Premiere To be recorded in London with the London Symphony Orchestra and streamed online.

Abu Dhabi Festival Youth Orchestra: Emirates Youth Symphony Orchestra October 2021 Abu Dhabi Riad Kudsi conducts Guido Felipe Sant’Anna e Silva (violin, right) and the EYSO in a programme of Beethoven, Saint-Saëns and Bizet.

Amanda Lee Falkenberg: The Moons Symphony 2021 sometime London A project that has been a longish and fruitful time in development, Amanda Lee Falkenberg’s composition in seven movements is based on visuals, reports and radio transmissions from the solar system. It’s fascinating (here’s the TEDxYouth@ASD talk she did in Dubai a couple of years ago) and spectacular – check out the samples here. With London Symphony Orchestra (conductor Marin Alsop) and London Voices. A co-production with The Moons Symphony Ltd.

A Journey with the Arabic Oud A CD box set of great oud music from across all the Arab regions and cultures; includes a DVD of the great lutemaker Albert Mansour at work. Produced by the Arab Music Archiving and Research in Lebanon, supported by the Abu Dhabi Festival.

Cairo Jazz Station Production of an album by the young trio who blend jazz and contemporary Middle Eastern music. A collaboration between ADF and Festival Aix-en-Provence.


Al Ain Film Festival Now in its third edition, the Al Ain Film Festival counts ADF as its “strategic cultural partner”. It’s not clear what this involves … AAFF is scheduled for 23-27 January 2021.

Al Ain Hajar Al Ruha (1946-1966) Documentary by the Emirati filmmaker Nasser Al Dhaheri chronicling the early life of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan when he was the Ruler’s Representative in Al Ain. An ADF co-production.

Uncle Naji Comedy by the Emirati filmmaker Ahmad Zain Al Hashmi. An ADF co-production.


Art Amid Covid Ten UAE-based creatives discuss how Covid-19 has impacted their artistic practices in an online series of short documentaries curated by Emirati artist Jalal Luqman. This is part of ADMAF’s excellent ongoing Riwaq al Fikr series of talks and panel discussions.

Portrait of a Nation II: An Odyssey An ADMAF touring exhibition of UAE-based visual artists, a successor to the influential 2016 original now curated by art historian Maya El Khalil, Roxane Zand from Sotheby’s, and ADMAF Visual Arts Consultant Jalal Luqman. No word yet on where it can be seen, but the exhibition will be accompanied by two books that trace the development of the UAE’s art scene.

Youth Platform A return for ADF’s multidisciplinary, capacity-building programmes for Emirati youth. There are no details as yet, but in the past there have been public events and workshops in local schools and colleges.

Dance me to the End of Night: Spirituality in Art Inspired by Islam from the 10th Century until Today An exhibition at the Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt am Main featuring works by influential contemporary artists from the Arab world. Sponsored by ADF.

Forever Is Now This, the fourth annual exhibition by Art D’Égypte, will be the first international art exhibition to take place on the Giza Plateau at the Great Pyramids of Giza when it opens in October 2021. It should be a spectacular event in a stunning setting; it will feature contemporary art from the Arab world, including some from the UAE (no details yet), plus a tribute to the noted Egyptian sculptor Adam Henein who died in May this year. ADF is ‘cultural partner’ for the event.

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