There's a certain sense of swagger in the recently unveiled third season of events hosted by the Arts Centre at NYU Abu Dhabi – the assured strut of a valued institution approaching adolescence.
During the past two years, the performance complex-academic laboratory has made a seismic contribution to the UAE’s cultural community, serving up a year-round programme of music, theatre and dance more ambitious and immersive than anything experienced in the capital.
The coming season – which kicks off in typically curious form on September 7 with a hip-hop dance/interactive media performance by France-based Brazilian troupe Compagnie Kaefig – feels like both a continuation and the solidification of an established ethos, with more left-turns on the horizon.
These include the Arts Centre’s first foray into comedy, with pioneering American-Palestinian stand-up Maysoon Zayid performing a night each in Arabic and English (September 13 and 14, respectively).
But more than anything, the third season will be defined by the names that are returning – with no fewer than five artists from the opening 2015-2016 season coming back to present new work, much of it commissioned in part by NYUAD.
These include a repeat visits from that landmark season's first two featured artists. American folk singer Toshi Reagon opened the inaugural season with a work-in-progress, "in concert" performance of Parable of the Sower. From November 9 to 11, she will return to present the full, finished opera version of the piece, which is based on cult sci-fi novels of Octavia E Butler.
Meanwhile, Kronos Quartet – widely hailed as the bravest chamber ensemble in the world – return for a residency, performing three distinct programmes, on February 15, 16 and 22 next year.
“So many people still harken back to Toshi Reagon and Kronos Quartet, which were our first two shows and are sort of the benchmark we’re up against now,” says Bill Bragin, the Arts Centre’s executive artistic director. “The question for me was to get over the curatorial ego of thinking it really needed to be really different each year.”
Also returning are New York-based southern-Indian-inspired Ragamala Dance Company, with the regional premiere of Written in Water, co-commissioned by the Arts Centre – and accompanied by a live score by trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, who performed two shows as a leader at the opening season.
“It really speaks of the overall quality of what we’re offering – these are literally some of the finest artists in the world, and they are choosing to premiere works with us,” Bragin adds. “They’re sharing work with the public for the first time, and choosing the Arts Centre as the place they trust with that responsibility.”
Also returning from the first season, British dancer Aakash Odedra will offer the world premiere of #JeSuis, from February 7 to 9, following a five-week stay finalising the piece on site.
“To come back to any place means there is a connection,” Odedra says. “We received much warmth from the people of Abu Dhabi. There was a sense of curiosity and hospitality that enabled me to express and share ideas.”
The return visits also offer the first tangible proof of the Arts Centre's investment in developing new work. In the case of Ragamala, the genesis of Written in Water began with a series of workshops during the company's stay in October 2015, while the finishing touches of Reagon's Parable of the Sower will be made in Abu Dhabi, before the opera inevitably tours the world.
“The idea that the work is born in the UAE and then being shared with the world is something that helps build the reputation of the country and Abu Dhabi,” Bragin adds.
“It signals to the world the kind of investment and commitment to the arts that’s being made here.”
The programme of more than 20 events – plus some still to be announced – will be spread across the Saadiyat Island campus’s three venues, capped by the 700-capacity Red Theatre, unveiled earlier this year.
Despite clocking more than 35,000 audience members over the past two years, the Arts Centre’s eclectic curation represents an ongoing bid to engage with the capital’s diverse communities, with performers representing more than 20 nationalities.
The 2017-2018 seasons also offers a widened family programme, including the interactive family dance Farfalle by Compagnia TPO (various dates from September 28) and a family matinee from Kronos Quartet (February 16).
Elsewhere, a greater embrace of regional traditions comes with the first Arab cinema series CinemaNa, throughout October and November, while among the most hotly anticipated dates is the UAE debut of 47Soul, a supergroup of Palestinian descent who perform as part of two-day world-music festival Barzakh, which returns on March 1 and 2, and also features experimental veteran Dutch punk adventurers The Ex collaborating with Ethiopian musician/dancers Fendika.
“It’s really about inspiring a greater sense of connection, especially among people who might be different to yourself,” Bragin says. “And just looking at the role arts can play in building a stronger and more cohesive society – I don’t think of the work in abstract; I really consider the work in relationship with the larger community.”
Unlike a typical performance complex, the Arts Centre does more than parachuting in big-budget names from overseas.
Visiting artists typically stay for a period of weeks, hosting workshops, masterclasses, talks and community dinners, all designed to inspire and nurture the UAE’s creative community.
“We talk about being part of building an arts and culture ecosystem, and that is in part about exposing the audiences to the work itself – but also about giving professional training to artists working within the community, to continue their creative development,” Bragin says.
“We are both inheriting the energy that existed before we got there, and catalysing much more ongoing activity on an almost weekly, year-round basis.”
Don’t miss – dates for your diary
A night still talked about in hushed tones by those who were there, in September 2015, the Arts Center's opening season was inaugurated with singer-songwriter Toshi Reagon's ambitious take on Octavia E Butler's Parable of the Sower: The Concert Version. Now, Reagon is returning to present the world premiere her opera of the same name – an expanded work which also continues the story into the sequel book Parable of the Talents – again directed by Eric Ting, across three nights. A week earlier, appetites will be whetted with a one-night-only outdoor show, backed by Reagon's rootsy rock band, BIGLovely.
East Plaza, November 2; The Red TheaterNovember 9 to 11.
Aakash Odedra Company – #JeSuis
In what will be the longest residency yet at the Arts Center, award-winning British dancer Aakash Odedra returns to spend five weeks on campus finishing a new, hour-long ensemble work, before presenting its world premiere in Abu Dhabi (an incomplete, 45-minute version will be previewed at this summer's Edinburgh Festival). Throughout his stay, students will interact daily as part of a specially curated companion course in dance and dramaturgy.
The Black Box, February 7 and 9.
The trailblazing maverick string quartet will present three vastly different programmes. The first will showcase material commissioned for the ensemble's 50 for the Future initiative – which grandly hopes to build a new repertoire for tomorrow's music students – while the second is an afternoon family matinee, Around the World with Kronos Quartet; performed privately for schools during the quartet's last visit in September 2015, but now opened up to the public.
The third and final night will see the regional premiere of A Thousand Thoughts, a "live documentary" collaboration with filmmaker Sam Green, who presents archival footage and "live" narration while Kronos perform.
The Red Theater, February 15, 16 and 22.
After a storming inaugural edition in February that could not be halted even by the elements – performances were shifted inside at the last minute – two-day world music festival Barzakh returns. Confirmed so far are 47Soul – regional heroes who channel traditional Palestinian dabke street-dance into frenzied 21st-century electronica – a Dutch punk/Ethiopian dance hybrid from The Ex and Fendika; and Haitian festival favourites RAM.
East Plaza, March 1 and 2.
Ragamala Dance Company – Written in Water
Embryonic work for this Bharatanatyam dance piece was completed when the New York-based Ragamala visited the Arts Center in October 2015. Inspired by the idea of snakes and ladders – which can represent ecstasy and deep longing in Hindu and Sufi thought – in interactive workshops students were invited to explore the nature of chance by acting out the classic board game. A live soundtrack comes from another repeat visitor, with Iraqi-American trumpeter/composer Amir ElSaffar performing a score pairing jazz and Arabic maqam with India's Carnatic traditions.
The Red Theater, March 21 and 22.
Tickets for all shows are free, with registered spots opening two to three weeks before the performance. For more information, visit www.nyuad-artscenter.org.