When Toshi Reagon takes to the stage at The Arts Centre at NYU Abu Dhabi to present the world premiere of Octavia E Butler's Parable of the Sower, on November 9 to 11, it will mark the fitting close of a full circle. The genre-bending cultural complex at the university campus was inaugurated by Reagon in September 2015, opening its first performance season with a stripped-back, work-in-progress "in concert" version of the opera. Now, she is back to present the finished piece.
Reagon is the first of five eminent artists making a repeat appearance, as part of The Arts Centre’s confident third season, some to present new work in-part developed during their earlier stay in the emirate. The coming months will also welcome return visits from Aakash Odedra, Kronos Quartet, Ragamala Dance Company and Amir ElSaffar, who all performed during the 2015/16 programme.
For Reagon, her mind was made up by the response to her last visit, which marked both the song cycle’s second booking, and the first outside her hometown of New York.
“I think back to people at The Arts Centre – I could feel they had a personal investment in this work,” says Reagon. “It meant a lot that they asked me to open the centre and introduce it to the community with this work – and bringing it back really felt like the right thing.”
Hosting the world premiere of a piece that will doubtless go far and wide is a huge coup for the Emirates. “This is only the beginning,” quips Reagon, who is already sizing up a “juicy” hometown run before going on the road, and puts the Abu Dhabi brand at the heart of artistic circles across the globe.
By the end of this season, The Arts Centre will have hosted eight world premieres to date – in addition to more than 50 UAE premieres – including many Abu Dhabi-commissioned works tipped to later play at esteemed venues such as London’s Sadler’s Wells, and New York’s Carnegie Hall, while curators are flying in from The Netherlands and Singapore to consider works for future seasons.
One work already picking up an international buzz is the first complete presentation of Aakash Odedra's #JeSuis, at The Black Box from February 7 to 9. The British dancer's hour-long piece will be finished during a five-week stay on campus – the longest residency of any artist so far – during which dance and dramaturgy students will interact with Odedra daily, while completing a specially curated companion course.
Beyond the campus confines, The Arts Centre seeks to enrich the UAE’s wider creative community, with workshops, talks, school visits and community dinners which typically make up a performer’s stay.
Emirati spoken word artist Afra Atiq had the chance to collaborate with eccentric Swiss jazz pianist Nik Bärtsch, who opened The Arts Centre’s second season with a 27-hour-long, improvised concert ritual. “It was the first time I ever did anything with music,” says Atiq, “and it was a bridge between me and an international artist.”
Last year, Atiq also attended a workshop about breathing techniques hosted by the cast of Holoscenes – an installation piece in which the performers are slowly submerged with water inside a huge tank.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to meet lots of artists and interact with them in a way that wouldn’t normally be possible – and that’s really important in nurturing local and regionally based talent,” she says. “The Arts Centre is incredibly supportive of the arts community, and of Emirati artists. They provide opportunities for artistic development that I think are unique.”
Inviting performers back also plays a key role in demystifying the often-oblique creative process. In October 2015, Ragamala Dance Company visited to present They Rose at Dawn – just one week after its hometown New York premiere – and while in Abu Dhabi, the southern Indian-inspired dance troupe began embryonic work on a new piece co-commissioned by The Arts Centre, Written in Water.
Inspired by the role snakes and ladders play in Hindu and Sufi thought, students were invited to explore the nature of chance by acting out the classic board game, through interactive workshops. Now those same students can hope to join some dots when Written in Water is presented at The Red Theatre on March 21 and 22.
The performance will be bolstered by a live soundtrack, pairing Arabic maqam with India's Carnatic traditions, by Iraqi-American trumpeter/composer Amir ElSaffar – who also visited as a solo artist in April 2016. Also returning from the inaugural season is the renowned American string ensemble Kronos Quartet, who will host a short residency performing three distinct programmes, on February 15, 16 and 22, and will close with a live performance soundtracking a screening of the celebratory documentary film A Thousand Thoughts, by director Sam Green, and co-commissioned by The Arts Centre.
“When artists came for the inaugural season, they came on pure trust, in many cases based on our previous professional and personal histories together,” said Bill Bragin, The Arts Centre’s executive artistic director. “It’s an enormous point of pride that so many significant artists chose to return to The Arts Centre and to entrust us with world and regional premieres of their works. This is a vote of confidence that they knew the pieces would be well presented on a technical production level, that they felt personally well taken care of by our excellent staff, and they found the audiences to be warm, receptive and responsive.”
Hind Mezaina, an Emirati artist who blogs at The Culturist, praised the centre’s diverse programming but called for more opportunities for local performers to get onstage, and questioned why more homegrown work has yet to be commissioned.
“The UAE is very good at bringing in international artists, but we don’t get to see enough local or regional artists at a venue like the NYUAD’s Arts Centre stage,” she says. “To me, it is not about NYUAD putting the UAE on the international map – but about informing, educating and changing people’s perceptions about the lack of local cultural initiatives.
“It’s about reaching out to local and regional artists, and setting standards that could hopefully elevate music and performances that can be produced here.”
The Arts Centre is behind two initiatives specifically designed to spotlight UAE-based artists, according to Bragin: Rooftop Rhythms, which presents monthly poetry and spoken word events, and its UAE National Day event, Hekayah the Story, which draws upon local music and spoken word talents.
“We are looking to expand the presence of local and regionally based artists and work on our stages,” Bragin says. “As our international stature grows, it helps bring more general attention from the performing arts field to what’s happening in the UAE’s artistic communities, and creates a platform for us to showcase the dynamic work happening here to our colleagues abroad.
“The longer we are presenting our own events, and attending events in a wide range of venues around the country, the better we’re also getting to know the arts landscape. Local artists are introducing us to their peers, recommending people who we may not yet be familiar with, and we are watching artists continue to develop and refine their art.”
For the international visitors, the exchange of ideas goes both ways, with artists keenly appreciating the opportunity to engage outside of the concert hall. Reagon adds that one of the most moving motivations for bringing Parable of the Sower back to the UAE was the knowledge that her last visit inspired the source material to be taught on the university's literature syllabus.
“The Arts Centre is extraordinary,” she adds. “If every community can have a really good arts presentation institute like NYUAD, that is a real service to the community. It brings the world to the community – everybody can get to know the whole planet without even leaving their own neighbourhood. That’s so special, and so very valuable.”
For more on The Arts Centre at NYUAD, visit www.nyuad-artscenter.org