Abu Dhabi Festival: an inclusive March?

ADMAF, the Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation, has unveiled a characteristically eclectic roster for March’s month-long Abu Dhabi Festival 2019.

This 16th year of the Festival looks like being the biggest and best yet – 18 main productions, including two co-productions and two commissions; more than 500 artists from 17 countries; a mix of genres that ranges across opera, ballet, classical orchestra, jazz and flamenco; a total of 25 venues; more than 100 events in all, including a busy educational/community programme.

The Festival’s remit is “championing global cultural exchange, creativity and innovation in the arts and furthering its symphony of global cultures”. In practice, this means a  three-pronged approach: international artists and companies, a ‘Country of Honour’ (a very UAE-ish way of celebrating the cultural capital of a country that may well be prepared to fund the participation of some of its artists), and an educational programme on the side.

This year’s Country of Honour is the Republic of Korea, and the schedule includes two notable participations – the Korean National Ballet and the Korean Symphony Orchestra, for one performance from each.

In the past the Festival has been accused of flying in big-name artists from the international booking circuit, putting them up for a couple of nights while extracting one or two by-the-numbers performances from them, and waving them off immediately afterwards. That’s been changing, in that incoming artists sometimes stick around for workshops and the like, though there is still a slight sense of arbitrariness about this year’s festival – notably in its relationship with the Special Olympics that are also taking place in the UAE capital during March.

The Festival’s central theme this year is the ‘Culture of Determination’ “in celebration of everyone who battles against the odds to make a positive impact on society”. You wouldn’t want to argue with that, but there’s scant evidence of inclusivity in the programming.

Frankly this looks to us like a missed opportunity of elephantine proportions. You don’t have to look too far to see what might be possible. For instance, in 2017 the BBC Proms introduced inclusivity for the audience in the form of a Relaxed Prom; it was a concert suitable for those with autism, sensory and communication impairments and learning disabilities as well as individuals who are deaf, blind, hard of hearing, or partially sighted. It was a major success.

There are many more examples of inclusivity among performers. The British Paraorchestra, active since 2011, is one of the best-established orchestras to consist entirely of musicians with disabilities. Its goal: “to redefine what an orchestra can be”.

Earlier this year the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra became the first symphony orchestra in the world to have a professional ensemble led by disabled musicians. It’s called Resound, and the six members play chamber concerts as well as taking their place in the full orchestra.

There are many other examples, including the Tap Tap – an orchestra created 18 years ago to give students at a renowned school for the disabled in Prague an extracurricular activity. It has grown into an acclaimed professional band with an exciting repertoire.

And dance is a special opportunity to demonstrate how apparent disabilities can be incorporated into the arts. There are a number of top-quality contemporary dance companies made up of disabled and non-disabled dancers – like Candoco, Anjali and Stopgap from Britain; or Infinite Flow, Infinity Dance Theatre, AXIS Dance and Tokounou Dance Company in the States.

It would have been good to see one or more of those participating in the Abu Dhabi Festival. As Peter Wheeler, CEO of Special Olympics Abu Dhabi 2019, put it in the official press release: “Music and arts transcend all boundaries, and provide fantastic opportunities for people of determination to express themselves, experience joy and increase their self-esteem”.

He went on: “This year’s ADMAF event will be a powerful voice for celebrating differences and promoting inclusion, and we are delighted that musicians with intellectual disabilities will be able to showcase their extraordinary talents to audiences here in the UAE”.

He’s presumably referring to an hour-long concert on 16 March under the title Stand Up for Inclusion. The organisers say this “will deliver a message of hope to everyone and help people see what is normally unseen”; it seems to take the form of three individual performances, entitled Togetherness, Passion and Inclusion, each one lasting 20 minutes and featuring classical music, pop music “and a mixture of the two”.

“This will be a unique experience for the performers and audience alike,” declares the blurb. Indeed.

Otherwise the Festival offers a strong but slightly predictable programme including the Koreans; a concert production of Tosca featuring Bryn Terfel; the spectacular Sara Baras and her contemporary flamenco company; and a performance of Balanchine’s Jewels by the Paris Opera Ballet to conclude proceedings.

The slightly leftfield entrant is jazz pianist Justin Kauflin and his trio, playing at The Arts Center at NYUAD rather than the lusher surrounds of Emirates Palace’s theatre.

Art isn’t usually part of the Abu Dhabi Festival, but this time there’s an interesting touring show called Distant Prospects: Landscape Painting from the Collections of the Prince Von und Zu Liechtenstein. This group of important European landscapes from Vienna, which also includes loans from other collections, was first shown ten years ago at the Lucerne Museum of Art. The paintings range from the 15th to the 19 centuries, which just about covers the history of European landscape painting; the exhibition will feature key figures in the Late Renaissance and Baroque movements – especially the Dutch and Flemish ‘Golden Age’.

This should be impressive, for the Liechtenstein collection is extensive and rich. But again it does look a bit arbitrary: there seems no particular reason to bring this exhibition to Abu Dhabi, though you could say the same about the rest of the programme – the cultural value should be an end in itself. Given the inclusivity agenda of the Special Olympics link, though, it does seem like another missed opportunity …

Rudolf von Alt, View of the Molo in Venice with the Doge's Palace and Santa Maria della Salute (1835)
Rudolf von Alt, View of the Molo in Venice with the Doge’s Palace and Santa Maria della Salute (1835)

Still, there is a parallel educational programme of panel discussions, guided tours and creative workshops. ADMAF is also offering a residency programme for five practising Emirati artists who will be given the opportunity to visit the Liechtenstein bases of Vaduz and Vienna and partake of “a diverse itinerary of cultural engagements”.

Apart from its established methodology of bringing top names to the capital, the Festival has a busy sideline in educational and community programmes with exhibitions, performances and workshops. The two-night Festival in the Park alfresco comedy gig will return to Umm Al Emarat Park.

More information here.

Headline performances

7 March Giselle Korean National Ballet The timeless romantic ballet about a peasant girl with a weak heart and a passion for dancing. Choreographed for Korean National Ballet by Patrice Bart AED 175-350

8 March Korean Symphony Orchestra Its Arab World debut – conducted by Chung Chi-Yong – features Young Jo Lee’s Arirang Festival for Orchestra, the Liszt Piano Concerto No.1 (Jae-Hyuck Cho, piano) and Dvořák’s Symphony No.8 AED 175-350

11 March Justin Kauflin Ballet Award-winning American jazz pianist and his trio performing tracks from his new album Coming Home. Most ADF performances are at Emirates Palace; this one is at The Arts Center NYUAD AED 100

15 March Tosca A concert production of Puccini’s classic featuring a full cast of soloists (Bryn Terfel as Scarpia, Kristine Opolais as Tosca, Vittorio Grigolo as Cavaradossi), the Sinfonia Cymru orchestra, and the Côr choir AED 175-350

16 March Stand Up For Inclusion Three 20-minutes musical performances entitled Togetherness, Passion and Inclusion. Price and location tbc

21 March Sombras, Sara Baras Flamenco Ballet Company Sara Baras comes to the Abu Dhabi Festival on the 20th anniversary of her ballet company, with traditional and modern choreographies and guest dancer Jose Serrano AED 175-350

29 and 30 March Jewels, Paris Opera Ballet Balanchine’s three-act plotless ballet AED 175-350

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