Talking conversations: the new Arts Center season at NYUAD

It’s become something of an end-of-summer tradition that magpie interviews Bill Bragin, Executive Director of The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi. As a significant player in the UAE’s art scene, he usually has pertinent observations and insights. But the immediate reason is the announcement of the season at The Arts Center, always interesting and more importantly right on target for the kind of thing a performance-oriented arts centre ought to be doing.

The theme for his programming this time is ‘arts at the centre’. He says that in part this reflects his fondness for a pun, though it doesn’t quite work in the collision between American English (as used in the title of The Arts Center) and British English (as used by magpie, so we say The Arts Center is an arts centre).

Wordplay aside, the theme also signifies the idea that the arts can be at the centre of the conversation. Says Bill Bragin: “It relates to the other idea that runs through this season, the year of sustainability: programming that refers to any of social issues shouldn’t be considered as simple entertainment. The arts aren’t an add-on to the conversation. The arts are at the centre of it, especially in terms of building community and reflecting the things that matter to the community.

“So with this season’s theme I wanted to play around with that idea – how the arts can be important for so many different aspects of people’s lives.” That’s evident from the opening item, Andrew Schneider’s N O W I S W H E N W E A R E (the stars). It’s a performance piece that sits somewhere between installation and theatre; technically impressive (nearly 5,000 miniature light points and surround sound react to the movement of the audience in a darkened theatre) but delivering an emotional as well as a sensory impact.

“It’s thoughtful and emotionally moving”, says Bragin, “and when we were putting the season together I asked Andrew [Schneider] whether there’s any substantiality or climate lens to the piece – the year of sustainability is other theme. He came back with a link to a Wikipedia article about the Overview Effect, the cognitive shift reported by some astronauts while viewing the Earth from space.

“That Earthrise image captured this [Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, who took the photograph, said it made him think ”Here we came all this way to the Moon, and yet the most significant thing we’re seeing is our own home planet, the Earth”]. And it was used on the cover of the Whole Earth Catalogue, one of the triggers for the modern ecological movement. To me, it’s a beautiful metaphor to kick off the season – the idea that you can have an experience in the arts that can become an epiphany, something that can impact your whole worldview.”

There’s another piece that Bragin is looking forward to: Koyaanisqatsi Live, Godfrey Reggio’s groundbreaking film Koyaanisqatsi set to a score by Philip Glass that is played by the Philip Glass Ensemble. This one is important to Bill Bragin: “It’s a highly influential work that used non narrative cinema to examine the majesty of nature and the negative impacts of urbanisation. But it’s also very personal. I remember walking through Manhattan after seeing it originally, and staring around the city with wonder because I felt my perception had been changed. Hearing the music and then seeing the film was like my own personal Overview Effect …”

Indeed, the film and the music together are impressive – and very accessible; neither the film nor the music are didactic or over-intellectual. It’s actually quite a visceral experience. Bragin agrees. “One of the beautiful aspects of the music is the way it starts slow and gradually speeds up. Your heartbeat sort of picks up with it, and you’re completely kind of in sync with it.”

As a third example he picks out Asian Dub Foundation, in town for two shows – one a cine-concert where the band provides live accompaniment to Mathieu Kassovitz’s gritty 1995 story of the French suburbs La Haine. The other is a live concert (“we don’t often turn the Black Box into a hot, sweaty dance club”, says Bragin, “but we will this time!) by a band that is representative of the kind of music the he loves – hybrid performers who capture the idea that a band can be very culturally specific while absorbing influences and styles from elsewhere. “Asian Dub Foundation very clearly come from a British/South Asian perspective, but they have also been raised on Jamaican music, and hip hop, and rock … it’s all in there.

“And it’s politically and socially engaged too. I think there’s a lot of conversation now about intersectionality, and ADF have been intersectional from the beginning. The need to make the world a better place by understanding all the different layers of connection resonates in the UAE, where that kind of coalition building is so essential.”

So it is indeed a season of programming with arts at the centre of several conversations, and from different perspectives too. But how does Bragin judge the success or otherwise of those goals? Although box office business is usually good for The Arts Centre, footfall and bums on seats don’t provide much of a measure. As he puts it, “I’ve spent a lot of my career doing large mass events, and there’s a power in that. But we’re starting with a piece that has an audience of just eight people at a time [Andrew Schneider’s N O W I S W H E N W E A R E (the stars) has the option for a guided walkthrough for small groups].

“My goal is for somebody to walk out of the Center and say ‘wow, that was incredible’. But for me the other KPI is about the conversations that you open. Sharing of experience and transfer of experience. Making a community around the event or the performance. That’s what the arts can do”.

At the end of our conversation Bill Bragin turned the tables and asked us what we thought of the programme. Our immediate response was that it doesn’t feel too different from past seasons – which sounds dismissive but is very definitely intended as a compliment. Over the years – nine of them so far – the programming has created an identity for The Arts Center: to use a cliché, we have come to expect the unexpected. You just know there will be shows in the Center’s schedule that engage and intrigue as well as entertain.

The Arts Center Season Nine: highlights from the next three months

31 Aug 31 to 10 Sep (not 4 Sep)
Andrew Schneider: N O W I S W H E N W E A R E (the stars)
An interactive theatrical cosmos surrounded by thousands of reactive lights and hundreds of speakers. Experience the show as a Guided Journey (for up to eight people) or as an Open Universe (self-guided, max audience size about 40)

7 Sep
Betsayda Machado and La Parranda el Clavo
A musical journey to the coast of Venezuela, featuring Venezuelan Afro-Soul ‘Tambor’- a spirit-shaking percussion and voice celebration with an opening performance of Emirati maritime heritage.

21 Sep
Asian Dub Foundation / La Haine
Mathieu Kassovitz’s landmark award-winning film La Haine gets a new live soundtrack of searing junglist beats, indo-dub bass lines, and funked-out guitars, from ADB

22 Sep
Asian Dub Foundation Live in Concert
Tough jungle rhythms, dub basslines, wild guitar, and forceful high-speed raps from South Asian roots filtered through London, Jamaica and a potent awareness of social issues

30 Sep
Bebel Gilberto: Songs My Father Loved
The Brazilian chanteuse with a series of heartfelt and personal songs by and for her father, bossa nova icon João Gilberto

5 Oct
Koyaanisqatsi Live
Godfrey Reggio’s groundbreaking film, set to a score by Philip Glass, performed live by the Philip Glass Ensemble – a hypnotic exploration of nature, urbanisation, and a world out of balance

12 + 13 Oct
Dana Gingras & Animals of Distinction: FRONTERA
Innovative choreographer Dana Gingras and her company Animals of Distinction with a visually stunning spectacle of propulsive dance, dazzling lighting and powerful live post-rock in an exploration of borders as places of inclusion and exclusion, boundaries between the public and private realms

16, 17, 18 Nov
Miwa Matreyek: This World Made Itself / Infinitely Yours
Performance meets animation at the intersection of cinematic and theatrical, fantastical and tangible, and illusionistic and physical in evocative explorations of the earth and the environment

29 Nov
Small Island Big Song: Our Island
A musical collaboration by islander songkeepers from the Pacific and Indian Oceans as they voice concerns of the changing seas

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