By the book: performance arts come to Saadiyat

So what were you doing seven years ago? Bill Bragin was opening the pilot season of his arts centre at NYU Abu Dhabi. It probably was the only multi-disciplinary arts and performance space in the country at the time, and things haven’t changed much since; so the branding style (The Arts Center, all initial caps) is arguably justified.

It’s true that in seven years the cultural landscape has altered even more than the UAE’s urban scenery. The big boost though has come from the visual arts – the opening of the Louvre and the Jameel, the galleries boom in Alserkal Avenue, NYUAD’s own Art Gallery (initial caps again), the art fairs and their associated public programming. There’s been relatively little to report on the performance front, though the (much younger) Cultural Foundation does have a reasonable spread of events. Elsewhere the Junction does valiant work for non- or semi-pro theatre, there are a couple of affordable-end gig venues for bands like the Fridge’s intimate Alserkal space, Dubai Opera and Abu Dhabi Classics at Emirates Palace cater for big-name touring companies.

But nothing compares with The Arts Center for the breadth of its programming (and the breadth of imagination too). It has three performance venues, all very different, plus the outdoor arena of the East Plaza; and that means it can put on a variety of shows, from the intimate and basic to the technically complex and mind-blowing.

And its team is keen to do just that. Here’s Bill Bragin (right, Executive Artistic Director of The Arts Center) on his basic approach: “When considering whether I should include a project in our season’s programming, one early rule of thumb was: Is there anyone else in the country who would consider bringing this project? No? Then the project needs us. Another was: Does the work require multiple hyphens as a descriptor? Would it be rewarding for the curious audience member? If so, then I’d want to share it with the community …”

Those remarks come from the foreword to The Arts Center – Building a performing arts community on Saadiyat Island. The book’s perhaps overly explicit and defiantly unsnappy title delineates the genesis and development of The Arts Center over those first seven years, organised into five chapters each containing essays and reflections from people who one way or another have been instrumental in defining the institution and can express what it means to them.

The chapters are bound separately and the whole comes as a neatly packaged boxset of five slim volumes in both English and Arabic text. Each chapter takes a different aspect of the Art Center’s delivery mechanisms and uses them as an indicator of development. So Chapter 1 is for the East Plaza, the original outdoor performance space used while work progressed on the interiors. Obviously this created an informal environment in which the separation between viewer and performer was less marked; removing the ‘them and us’ divisions is one of the tenets of the Arts Center, which sees itself as being in the business of community-building.

Chapter 2 is titled The Black Box. This is the versatile space in which new work can be incubated without too many physical restrictions, and that too is a useful metaphor. And Chapter 3 is named for The Red Theater, a full equipped 700-seat proscenium theatre with world-class acoustics suits more conventional presentation and is arguably the finest performing arts venue

Chapter 4 is titled the Blue Hall, referring to The Arts Center’s more intimate 150 capacity concert hall for smaller-scale performances like recitals, small-group dance productions, film shows, and workshops and readings. This section provides a way into a significant aspect of The Art Center, its work with schools and community groups, interdisciplinary collaborations, and artist workshops.

The final chapter look at the ways The Arts Center moved online in response to the pandemic. Earlier this year Bill Bragin talked to us about this: “Covid did force me to think a lot about the work we do – why is it important, what do I what achieve with it? And why did it feel like so much of a lifeline for people during the especially during the height of the lockdown to have access to art, even if was via their computer? What did that mean?

“I think it helped to suggest alternative strategies. And so there was an aspect of lockdown that actually felt very creative, very generative. Because we realised that there was there was an urgency there, that what we do is not a luxury, and that we needed to find a way to do it.”

That’s the point of the fifth volume, which focuses primarily on two projects and reactions to the situation that produced them. One is The Gauntlet: Faraway Together, a project that composer Sxip Shirey and choreographer Coco Karol had to change from an immersive, site-specific performance into a completely reimagined but massively successful virtual alternative. As Karol puts it: “For the NYUAD Gauntlet performance, Shirey and I felt strongly that yes, these stories are not only a reflection of this moment in history, disrupted by the global pandemic, but in fact they might be the only way to understand this moment in time – defined by isolation, displacement, and placelessness.”

The other project was Karishma Bhagani’s series of micro-plays, Theatre For One: We Are Here (Nairobi Edition). Here a single actress addresses a small online audience; Bhagani’s essay reflects on “how the screen became a mediator between audience and performer” and “as participation via virtual platforms was normalised, and the access to international theatre communities made easier, the internet enabled us to embrace a certain borderless interaction …”

The virtual Arts Center may have been a reaction to events, but it demanded the kind of flexibility and creative thinking that should be second nature to any arts centre. It must be part of the DNA now.

And that’s one of the pleasures from reading the book; it’s a parade of ambitions (many of them realised) and insights (almost all apposite). The majority of the contributions are articulate, thoughtful and good at providing a personal take on public performances. They come from a variety of participants, including NYUAD faculty and people on the Arts Center team but also performers and even a few audience members (albeit drawn mostly from the ranks of arts reviewers for The National).

Maybe a few more voices from the paying public would have made the whole book a little more inclusive, but that’s probably nit-picking – and difficult to organise, too.

A few of the major players in Abu Dhabi’s cultural bureaucracy also contribute, and inevitably their messages feel a bit sanitised by the PR committee approach. It’s probably polite and maybe essential to have them, though, and there aren’t many.

Otherwise we enjoyed reading the comments, anecdotes and conclusions. In fact our only significant complaint is that we would have liked more of a record of the actual programming. True, all the Arts Center shows are listed, from Mary McBride opening the 2015 pilot to the final performances of the Spring 2022 season. But they’re printed at the back in dense italics that do little to emphasise the stunning range of artists and artistic endeavours that have been seen in Saadiyat. Next time, how about thumbnail images and more typography to remind us what we did see? After all, from the viewer’s angle the actual experience of The Arts Center is as valuable as its ethos and aims …

Still, it’s the ethos and those aims that ultimately are the important takeaways; and they provide a meaty filling for this handsome box set. Get hold of a copy if you can – it should be in bookshops and Amazon soon.

“My goal is to establish The Arts Center as a peer to rival any of the world’s great contemporary performing arts centres, while retaining a flavour unique to our home” writes Bill Bragin. He’s doing a grand job of it so far, and the boxset is a very decent record of progress.

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