The definite article: Bill Bragin on the post-pandemic Arts Center at NYUAD

Bill Bragin drinks his coffee from a mug with an elegantly calligraphed design. On one side it reads ‘definitely’, on the other ‘inshAllah’. He commissioned it for himself last year, and he says that “definitely, inshAllah” is currently his favourite expression.

Should we do this thing? Definitely, inshAllah. “During the past year I’ve come to appreciate the enthusiastic intention of the ‘definitely’ with the acknowledgement that so many things bigger than us are out of our hands. There’s something about admitting your powerlessness that also helps you keep pushing through. Or you hold on to the ‘definitely’ part and find another way to do it.”

It’s the start of his seventh season as Executive Artistic Director of The Arts Center (yes, the initial capitals are part of the name style) at NYU Abu Dhabi. The schedule is full of the kind of thing that we have come to associate with his programming – boundary-testing performance projects, support for locally based work, international collaborations, new commissions – but the theatre spaces in the Arts Center building will remain empty for the time being. Covid restrictions and quarantine requirements mean that for the Fall season at least the Arts Center will be an online venue.

“A year and a bit ago, it became clear that the Fall 2020 season could not happen as we had planned. Once I got over the initial depression, it became clear that we had opportunities as well as problems. In many ways we’ve been able to embrace the constraints and it’s allowed us do some of the things that move the larger project forward.

“What came out felt really inspiring.”

He says he feels really good about the seventh year at The Arts Center, not least because he’s built a team that he says can deal with the curve balls – there were just four of them for season one, now it’s around 22 with more hiring going on right now. Around two thirds of them are on the tech side, which means The Arts Center can put on more complicated shows, more of them, and with a more professional attack.

A bigger team also allows for flexibility, switching the 2020 schedule quickly from live to online. The Spring 2022 programme for instance is all planned for a return to in-person performances; but the contingency planning is in place if international artists can’t travel or audiences can’t attend.

Clearly though the pandemic restrictions have provoked a lot of reflection. The Arts Center’s official description of itself is “a vibrant laboratory for performance that fosters a dynamic relationship between the arts, scholarship, and the community”. So has The Arts Center’s remit changed in seven years? And indeed in 18 months? Or, as Bill Bragin puts it, “just what is our mission now? What does it mean to be The Arts Centre? What is our purpose if we can’t gather actually together people in space and time?”

The results of the questioning turn out to be positive. “I think we still have the exact same mission. We’re still developing and presenting a lot of new work. We want to be outward looking, part of the international landscape. Most important, we are part of the local ecosystem. We’re bringing artists here from abroad, we’re planting seeds, and we’re starting to see those seeds flower with local artists and local stories.”

An example is Philip Rashid’s It Ain’t Where You From, a cross-media documentary performance commissioned by The Arts Center that explores the underground b-boy/b-girl culture in the UAE. This piece grew out of 2018’s A Thousand Thoughts, a live cinema project directed Oscar-nominated filmmaker Sam Green. The wildly creative multimedia experiment blends narration, live music from Kronos Quartet, archive footage and filmed interviews with artists from Philip Glass and Steve Reich to Wu Man and Terry Riley.

A Thousand Thoughts is essentially a meditation on the act of listening to music, the experience of feeling it deeply, and the power that it has to change the world. Rashid went to the filmmaking workshop run by Green in Abu Dhabi as part of the project, and a couple of years later came to The Arts Center with the proposal for a live transmedia piece.

But the delivery mechanisms have obviously changed – “the work’s not physically in our venues and we’re not bringing people to campus” – and that has implications for The Arts Center’s reach. Bill Bragin is happy that the live stream of Nrityagram Dance Ensemble’s Āhuti was a New Yorker pick of the week, and people have attended the Center’s online workshops from around the world (Bragin specifically mentions the UK, Cairo, and Sri Lanka. Oh, and Minneapolis).

And the flow has continued. “We’ve really dug into commissioning and generating new work.” Things like the upcoming edition of Theatre for One, where The Arts Center commissioned six playwright/performers from Kenya for one-to-one microplays – one performer, one audience member.

The original conversation was about developing a production in the Center’s Black Box theatre, but that was overtaken by events and it was re envisioned as an online experience. “So no need to fly everyone over here! We’re working clever to develop new work – across three continents right now” (that’s Africa for the playlets, America for the creative direction from the idea’s originators, and the Middle East for delivery) “– and that’s feel completely consistent with our mandate from the beginning.”

The local commitment is still strong, of course. “There’s been a lot of conversation with colleagues across the UAE about the need to really invest more in locally based artists so that we could continue to do what we do even if the borders were never to open again. We had to find ways to work to support the artists who were here with us … We’ve been here long enough now to understand the landscape, what’s here, where the gaps are. We now have the space and the resources to address that.

“We see The Arts Center as having an educational function, both within the university but also in the wider community. A lot of what we’re doing aims at creating a lot more projects and artists capable of working at the same level as Phil Rashid.”

The specific artist development goal is something that The Arts Center has been thinking about for a long time. Numoo is the immediate result, a year-long semi-academic programme that includes working sessions, regular meetings with instructors, and independent work for each participant based on their own practices. “Numoo is tailored toward professional skills and process, rather than being product oriented,” says the announcement of the first cohort of 14 .selected individuals. “Numoo aims to have each artist grow professionally in their field, to build a sustainable artistic community, to better enable them to bring their work to the public, in the UAE, and further afield.will foster the growth of performing artists in the UAE, and contribute to the development of the nation’s arts ecosystem.”

Jaysus Zain, one of the inaugural 14 participants in Numoo

Currently Numoo is a one-year pilot with 14 participants. The hope is that it can be developed and continued; the press release has Bill Bragin saying “It’s our hope that the artists selected to inaugurate this program will strengthen their ability to build sustainable careers in the UAE, as well as increasing UAE-based artists’ capacity to bring their work to international stages.”

This is the kind of thing that happens a lot in the visual arts. It’s much less common for performance artists, and it could be one of the most significant long-term legacies of The Arts Center. It also sounds somewhat valedictory, the kind of thing an outgoing arts administrator might want to leave as their legacy.

Not that Bill Bragin gives the impression of going anywhere else anytime soon. Is the job still big enough for you, we asked. “One hundred percent,” he replied.

“I was a lifelong New Yorker, and my friends thought I could never leave the city. But now when the idea of going back to New York comes up, it doesn’t excite me any more. There’s incredible stuff happening there, new venues, new festivals, all great opportunities. But it just doesn’t mean as much to me. I feel like our work here really has meaning.

“We’re able to influence individuals. I’ve been watching our impact on local artists over the years. And earlier today I had a conversation with a young Emirati who talked about how much the performances she’d seen at The Arts Center had changed the way she thinks. That’s motivating.

“And we’re able to influence strategy. We have an extraordinary opportunity to talk to people within government and institutions about changes that are coming and what developments should be fostered. I’m positioned now where my input can help influence decisions, which is exciting.”

The creative problem solving that has been required recently is quite a motivator, too. “As a curator I like to create challenges for myself, and I started to really enjoy the idea of testing the definitions and adapting on the fly. So what does theatre mean if it consists of two people talking to each other? Do they have to be in the same space?

“When we commissioned The Gauntlet, a choral piece by Sxip Shirey and Coco Karol, it was going to involve an audience walking through a choir performing around them, immersing themselves in the sound. Clearly that couldn’t happen with Covid. So it turned into a 3D spatial audio piece – and it was extraordinary. The piece was incredibly moving and feels in certain ways even more a portrait of our community than it might have been in the original form.

“The question now is what do we hold on to after we’re back with in-person performances. What feels like a new part of our practice. There’s been a lot of talk in the performing arts space about second screen experiences, and AR, and working with video. Engaging with digital performance has been in the air, and we were already into live streaming. But I don’t think we would have been this far into it.

“Theater for One is a great way for us to get to know other regional theatre scenes. It’s Kenya this year, could be Beirut or Cairo or Kolkata next time – anytime we want to start building a relationship with a distant artistic scene. And once we have those relationships we can explore other projects we want to do together.”

The detail continues to engage Bragin. But there’s something else, what he calls “real momentum,. It’s the desire to maintain and build on the value that The Arts Center can bring.

“When I first came here the promise was that I could be in at the beginning of something important, be part of building a whole cultural district. And it feels like it’s not been a day – there’s still the desire to make sure the institution that we’ve built is lasting. Covid has been such a disruption to everyone in the performing arts, and so many places have gone under; it could be really easy to say hey, we can’t do this any more. But it feels even more urgent, even more necessary. We’re going to come out of this period to continue to be as important in people’s eyes, to be as much part of the fabric of the UAE, part of everybody’s everyday life … “

Still, no one is going to deny that there’s something very special about live performance, “those little explosions of dopamine that you can’t get so much online”. It’s a different visual, aural and physical experience.

So will The Arts Center be back to live performances in the Spring?

“Definitely. InshAllah.”

The theme for The Art Center’s seventh season is Now and Into the Future. The September programme includes …

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