Telling stories: season eight for The Arts Center

Candoco Dance Company: Set and Reset/Reset

The eighth season of performances, talks, and workshops at The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi continues the mix much as before, and that’s no bad thing – an eclectic selection of music, dance and theatre, the kind of thing that makes you think “hey that’s interesting …”

Bill Bragin (photo: Carlos Giménez)

The theme this time is ‘Stories’. Why stories? We asked Bill Bragin, Executive Artistic Director at The Arts Center, and he admitted the shows come first and the theme comes along later: “we tend to put together the season and then start to think about what is the season about, to look for the connections. The meaning of the season sort of emerges …”

In this case, however, the idea of telling stories feels quite natural, if only because Bragin believes that one of the key roles of The Arts Center is to create a common environment for a disparate community. “I think we can provides shared experiences and a shared history for people who come to this country from so many different backgrounds – to create a degree of common language and common experience for those people.

Meklit Hadero (photo: Ryan Lash)

“Telling stories is a key element in delivering that.” This is certainly true of the season opener on 8 September, Meklit’s Movement LIVE – essentially a performance based on stories of migration, belonging and the meaning of place. Meklit says the goal is “to craft and uplift new narratives of migration shaped by the folks who have experienced it. Unlike mainstream coverage of this issue, our narratives are never defined by trauma alone. Instead, we celebrate their creative power, myriad contributions and incredible music …”

In the middle of the season (28 November) is The Arts Center’s own regular mini-festival of migration and coming together, Hekayah – which actually translates as ‘the story’. It’s an attempt to give non-UAE nationals a chance to celebrate UAE National Day, to find some sense of ‘home’.

Then there’s Hervé Koubi, who was raised in France, trained as a classical ballet dancer, and now runs his own boundary-crossing dance company. “As part of the process of exploring his North African identity he read a novel by Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra, What the Day Owes to the Night. It’s a coming of age story set at the cusp of Algerian independence. The dance piece on 26 October is not an adaptation of the book, but it is informed by a kind of shifting orientation of identity. So it mixes Western-style contemporary dance and ballet with breakdance, references to Sufi whirling dervishes, capoeira and gymnastics.” That story of multiple inputs and mixed identities fits exactly the idea of stories – how we got here from there, what we picked up along the way.

Compagnie Hervé Koubi

But not all the shows in this season are about explicit storytelling. The CanDoCo programme on 17 September, for instance, involves two pieces of choreography that are defiantly non narrative – and, as Bragin puts it, the stories there are not necessarily about the content of the piece. If dance itself is a language, the stories told by dance are about occupying space, what happens there and how. “And of course the dancers themselves carry stories with them” – and in the case of CanDoCo, which is an inclusive dance company, the dancers’ stories are often very visible. (The CanDoCo visit, incidentally, kicks off of a new multi year partnership with Dance Reflections by Van Cleef & Arpels, an international initiative that goes beyond mere branding to support artists and institutions in the modern and contemporary choreographic repertoire.)

Ravi Coltrane

Other artists in the season are also full of story. Ravi Coltrane, for instance: a noted jazz saxophonist in his own right, he’s the son of jazz greats John and Alice Coltrane and he’s named after Ravi Shankar. His gig on 6 October offers a spiritual (and spirited) exploration of the music of his parents; their story continues.

The theme of stories, and especially the duty of the story-teller, also seems to fit Bill Bragin’s personal position as he surveys this eighth Arts Center season. It’s quite a while to hold one job in the arts, after all. But the pandemic telescoped things: “time has sort of shrunk and expanded and loosened – certainly the past two years of running The Arts Center in fits and starts of virtual then in-person programming has definitely changed the sense of how long it feels like I’ve been here.

“But in any case there are three years of student intake who essentially are new to The Arts Center. NYU Abu Dhabi has close to 2,000 students now that we need to reintroduce ourselves to. Abu Dhabi itself has had so much turnover, too; there are so many people who don’t know us, who we need to welcome.

“It’s not starting from scratch, but I do feel there’s a need for some institutional rebuilding. Which ultimately is super fun and super challenging.

There’s another unfinished aspect of his work, continuing a shift of focus that started in The Arts Center’s fifth season, the first one that was interrupted by the pandemic. “We are creating something very explicit locally and regionally – something that could only be in Abu Dhabi. You see that approach in a piece like Movement, an international visiting artist who is working with UAE-based artists and creating work that really reflects this.” The performance is led by Ethiopian-American musician Meklit and features Freek, a Somali rapper raised in Abu Dhabi; Ghaliaa, an Al Ain-based Syrian singer-songwriter; and Filipino multi-instrumentalist Cromwell Ojeda, the main man from the Dubai-based indie electro-synth band Muhaisnah Four.

Al Raheel / Departure

Bragin clearly feels he needs to be here for a while more to build those relationships, to cultivate The Arts Center’s position as a creative catalyst that results in work which could come from anywhere else. You see it too in the revival of Al Raheel | Departure, another piece about identity which is rooted in a sense of place and absolutely identified with Abu Dhabi; “it’s a kind of theatre that could only have been born here, not just in the UAE but actually at this university. Developing those local voices, telling stories and then seeing that they do translate internationally – that’s the aspect of the work that I continue to find really exciting, really challenging, really inspirational.”

In many ways the UAE is a kind of social laboratory, experimenting with ways that provide a sense of identify, of belonging, for people who come here from very different environments elsewhere in the world – geographical, political, social, and not least climatic. The Arts Center is part of the laboratory; it looks like Bill Bragin is not going anywhere else anytime soon.

The season:

  • 8 Sep Meklit: Movement LiveA podcast come to life” that combines the energy of a concert with the intimacy of storytelling. The stories and songs explore ideas of a world in motion, defining identity, and what it takes to call a place home
  • 17 Sep CanDoCo Dance Company: Set and Reset/Reset and Last Shelter A double bill from the leading inclusive dance company, with work by two boundary-breaking choreographers in celebration of the different ways of seeing, of being, and of making art
  • 23 Sep Rooftop Rhythms (thereafter monthly to 16 June) The region’s top open mic night for spoken word poetry
  • 3 Oct CinemaNA (thereafter monthly) Contemporary Arab cinema – screenings followed by discussions with the filmmakers and NYUAD faculty
  • 29 Sept – 2 Oct Al Raheel | Departure Revival of the 2020 theatre production exploring the depth and diversity of life as a woman in the UAE
  • 6 Oct Ravi Coltrane Quartet: Cosmic Music An exploration of the groundbreaking spiritual jazz of John and Alice Coltrane
  • 26 Oct Cie Hervé Koubi: What The Day Owes To The Night Spectacularly physical piece that combines capoeira, martial arts, urban, and contemporary dance in retracing Koubi’s own history
  • 3 Nov Raul Midón and Alex Cuba An evening of soul, jazz, and Latin pop with two dazzling singer-songwriters
  • 28 Nov Hekayah | The Story Celebrate UAE National Day with a line-up of poets, spoken word artists, musicians, and storytellers from diverse backgrounds and cultures
  • 5 Dec Ōta Shōgo’s The Water Station A screen adaptation of NYUAD Theater Program’s annual student production: “movement, sound, and silence paint a vivid journey of migration and the act of leaving home, not as a choice, but in desperation”
  • 3-4 Feb Barzakh Festival 2023 Four very different bands over two nights of world music
  • 10 Feb Yaa Samar! Dance Theatre: The Last Ward The Palestinian/American dance company with a full-length dance theatre piece that addresses illness and mortality with sensitivity and humour
  • 27 Feb Rachmaninoff et al To celebrate the composer’s 150th anniversary, Ioannis Potamousis presents a solo piano programme featuring Rachmaninoff and those who inspired him: Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Chopin
  • 27, 27, 30 Apr Groupe Acrobatique de Tanger: FIQ! A very modern circus show – a whirlwind of traditional and modern floor acrobatics, dance, and breakdancing, as well as taekwondo and freestyle football, all with a Moroccan touch

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