The Abu Dhabi Festival is making an impression beyond the UAE.
In addition to an extensive programme of performances and exhibitions in the capital, the festival is simultaneously running an international calendar of cultural events, in the US and Europe.
The main offering of this year’s international outreach is the world premiere of dance production De Scheherazade a Yo, Carmen by flamenco star Maria Pages.
A joint project between Pages and Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, the show made its debut on Friday in the Spanish city, with four performances spanning a week.
The arresting production pays tribute to formidable women of literature and the stage, ranging from the title character of Bizet’s 19th-century opera Carmen to Scheherazade from the novel One Thousand and One Nights.
Personalities from Greek mythology make an appearance, too, such as the powerful sorceress Medea, in addition to the tragic housewife Yerma, the titular character of Spanish playwright Federico Lorca’s 1934 play.
Led by Pages and members from her youthful dance company, the characters are celebrated as much for their fierceness as their sensitivity.
Minimal and raw, the show's stark presentation encourages the audience to view the characters as women unburdened by societal conventions and speaking truth to power.
De Scheherazade a Yo, Carmen is brilliantly compelling.
The show has already received critical acclaim — with leading Spanish paper El Pais describing the opening night's show as "beautiful, hypnotic and has an overwhelming force" — ahead of the production embarking on a two-year world tour taking in Europe and South America. An Abu Dhabi show is not yet on the cards.
"A key mission for us is to create awareness about how beautiful flamenco can be and to share that Spanish heritage with the world," Pages tells The National.
“But at the same time this is generally challenging because it is getting harder to bring young audiences to the theatre because of the entertainment options they have.
"So to see the first show full of youth under 35 years was the most special part of the night. Their marvellous reaction is very encouraging as we go forward."
The global message of Abu Dhabi Festival
De Scheherazade a Yo, Carmen has some of the hallmarks of an Abu Dhabi Festival collaboration.
This includes a strong partnership with a formidable cultural organisation featuring seasoned international and regional artists tackling new ground within their respective craft.
“It is our contribution to cultural diplomacy,” she says.
“By partnering up with more than 35 of the greatest international institutions to create new works, commissions and productions, the festival opens doors for people both in Abu Dhabi and around the globe to discover the world’s greatest talents.”
These partnerships also feed into the UAE side of the festival, leading to more high-calibre shows being performed in Abu Dhabi, as well as masterclasses and workshops led by stars and industry leaders.
In Pages, the festival has found a forward-thinking collaborator.
Born in Seville, the dancer and choreographer built a four-decade career through which she is credited for fusing flamenco with elements of modern dance and theatre.
In addition to choreographing sequences for director Carlos Saura's celebrated trilogy of flamenco films (1983's Carmen, 1986's El Amor Brujo and 1995's Flamenco) Pages also teamed up with Riverdance to incorporate a flamenco section during their 1995 world tour.
Pages says the performers will embody Abu Dhabi's outward-looking ethos when De Scheherazade a Yo, Carmen hits the road later in the year.
“These kinds of partnerships are becoming rare and it really shows how Abu Dhabi, as a city as well as the festival, is really becoming a global centre for culture,” Pages says.
“This is already well known within the arts industry and when you become involved in a collaboration with the festival it is not only about the performance.
"It is also about being in line with the festival’s values and we hope to embody that with our performances.”
Abu Dhabi Festival's international programme in 2022 also includes the online release of Symphony #5, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and scored by Emirati composer Mohammed Fairouz.
Also coming up is Zigzag, a co-production by the American Ballet Theatre which premiered in 2021 and continues with a new season at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House from July 7.
Spain and the Arab world: a rich history
Ever since the inaugural Abu Dhabi Festival in 2004, Spain has played a major role in the event at home and abroad.
Spanish opera titans Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo played in the UAE in 2007 and 2013 respectively.
As well as the Gran Teatre del Liceu, the festival also signed a partnership with Madrid’s Teatro Real for a staging of Verdi’s opera Aida in October.
Such cultural contributions have led to Alkhamis-Kanoo being awarded The Commander of the Royal Order of Isabella the Catholic by the former king of Spain Juan Carlos in 2016.
“With Spain we share values of innovation, creation and respect,” Kanoo says.
“Spain and the Arab world share a cultural history that dates back to the 9th century from the time of Ziryab who revolutionised music by introducing the oud to Spain and Europe and who established the first conservatoire in the world, teaching its students harmony and composition.”
This is an aspect not lost on El Arbi El Harti, the Moroccan-Spanish playwright and lyricist of De Scheherazade a Yo, Carmen.
He tells The National that many forms of Spanish music and dance are borne from the marriage of Arabic and rural Spanish culture.
“It is very dynamic because you have the Arabs who remained in the Spanish peninsula after their expulsion by the Catholic Spanish kings,” he says.
“They found themselves amid the Spanish rural communities and it is their mix of high Arabic culture with the popular rural Spanish class that saw the arts in Spain evolve.
“I can say without doubt that the evolution of flamenco has an Arabic influence fundamentally.”
Alkhamis-Kanoo hopes to inspire such realisations by taking the Abu Dhabi Festival global.
“We do want to be a beacon of knowledge and platform for artistic innovation and cultural expression,” she says.
“It is not only important, but imperative that we present new productions globally, because their message will remain for humanity, inspiring new generations to look beyond our differences and come together in mutual understanding and respect.”
More information about the Abu Dhabi Festival is available at abudhabifestival.ae