Making Abu Dhabi art centric


Making Abu Dhabi art centric
Bill Bragin.

Abu Dhabi - Bill Bragin, executive artistic director of NYUAD's Arts Centre, is on his way to make the Capital a home for music, theatre and dance.


Silvia Radan

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Published: Tue 1 Sep 2015, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Tue 1 Sep 2015, 10:55 AM

On September 2, singer, songwriter and guitarist Toshi Reagon is inviting the Abu Dhabi audience to experience something new - a concert that blends science-fiction with African-American spiritualism.
His will be the first show in a nine-month season of performing arts presented for the first time by New York University - Abu Dhabi (NYUAD). Just like the mother university in the Big Apple, NYUAD has set up an arts centre offering art programmes for the general public.
The man behind this centre, Bill Bragin (executive artistic director of NYUAD's Arts Centre), has left one of the world's most prestigious performing arts institutions - the Lincoln Centre in New York - to make Abu Dhabi a home for music, theatre and dance.
KT met up with him for a chat about the arts.
Why a performing arts programme for the public?
It's part of NYUAD's larger mission for the student population here, and also for the larger UAE.
The idea is for the university as a whole to be a resource for the entire emirate and really the UAE at large, so what I'm trying to do is put together programmes that specifically speak to students, faculty and staff, but would also be meaningful to the general public.
Being here on Sadiyat and its Cultural District, we've got an opportunity to build this arts eco-system that is going to be increasingly part of the identity of Abu Dhabi.
How much are the students involved in the programme?
We are a complement to the academic side, so we are separate from it, but there are also student productions, theatre and musical recitals productions. Those come through the arts department - the film, the musical, the theatre, the visual art departments - so we are working complementary to one another.
When we bring an artist here, the idea is that they are not just doing a performance and then go away; in most cases the artists are here for residency, anywhere from three days to two weeks, doing a number of different interactions beyond the performances - workshops, masterclasses, visiting classrooms, really integrated with the course work, with the curricula.
When I selected the artists for this programme, one of the ideas was to speak with my colleagues and the faculty and get a sense of what kind of course they are doing and see what programme might relate to a class they are teaching and relates to their research interests, so that their work can be more meaningful.
What about the public? Are the performances meaningful to the general audience, as well?
I'm hoping it's going to be very meaningful. There is a variety of programing, some that are more specifically focused on Arab culture and tradition; we are very much focusing on being a contemporary arts centre, so a lot of the work we are doing is contemporary, and we are hoping that this is a chance to encourage people to take risks and see works from all over the world in styles that are unfamiliar. I think over time the idea might also encourage artists to explore different approaches and different forms, and to look at the kind of work that is coming from the US or Taiwan or from Korea and find more local ways to make that meaningful.
We have, for example, Amir El Saffar, who is a trumpet player. His background is Iraqi, but his heritage is based in the US. He works in a lot of different styles; he mixes maqam with jazz, but he also composes in contemporary classical. He is going to be here in the spring with a few different projects; one is going to be a big band, then he's doing a project with two small ensembles, one rooted in classical music, and one with a string quartet that uses the poetry of Ibn Al Arabi.
He is doing all of that, but he is also going to be here in October because he is composing music for the Ragamala Dance, a US-Indian based dance company, which we commissioned to create a new piece that won't be part of this season, but it will be developed here, so El Saffar will be here as part of the community, trying to make some connections, looking at the relationship between Arabic music and the Indian ragas.
Are you also working with other universities and art institutions in Abu Dhabi?
Yes, one of the first positions we hired was the director of external relations, whose role is to particular create those links with other organisations.
In addition to the public performances we have also invited performances for school groups, working with local private and public schools. We are talking about a lot of different possibilities with the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation in terms of co-promoting some of our performances, and we might also have additional events.
Our venues, once fully opened, are not just for our programmes, but also come up with programmes so that other communities and organisations can use them as well.
We are also talking to a number of local universities, reaching out to those with art programmes to invite performances depending on the nature of the work piece and the artists, again with workshops and masterclasses.
From Kronos Quartet to the gypsy band Fanfara Ciocarlia and Emirati hip-hop, the programme is quite eclectic. Is it going to work for the Abu Dhabi audience?
This programme, even in New York, is slightly idiosyncratic, not a mainstream collection of artists. For all of our audiences we are asking them to take a step outside their comfort zone and hopefully they will like it, but even if they don't, that's actually okay. It's more important to me that people take the chance and try something new.
The idea is come and see something that is not familiar, see this choreographer from the UK doing a piece about dyslexia using interactive video. It's a kind of work that hasn't been seen here before; it's really new work in the dance world.
Details of the NYUAD's performing arts programme are available on All performances are free of charge, but require prior booking.

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