As the executive artistic director of The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi, Bill Bragin strives to bring diverse, innovative, and interdisciplinary performance art to the Abu Dhabi community. It’s a task ripe with opportunity thanks to the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) commitment to becoming the Middle East’s artistic and cultural hub.
“The UAE is still a young country, but it’s developed extremely fast because it has embraced globalization as an asset and a strength,” says Bragin. “Along with this constant change and growth comes an amazing sense of possibility for the arts.”
In curating The Center’s demi-decade season, Bragin took UAE president His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s proclamation of 2019 as “The Year of Tolerance” to heart—building a schedule of performances and events dedicated to connecting diverse people through shared artistic experiences that celebrate traditions and a common humanity.
A Season of Diversity and Discovery
The season—which features more than 100 performances, including three world and 14 UAE premieres—kicks off with the Middle East debut of Ethiopian Dreams, a performance of acrobatics, contortion, and juggling by Ethiopian troupe Circus Abyssinia.
Other performances and events include:
- The Barzakh Festival, a music festival that convenes genre-bending artists from countries like South Africa, Cuba, and Egypt.
- Cartography – Kaneza Schaal & Christoper Myers, a theatrical work that explores the migration stories of refugee youth.
- DATA NOT FOUND, a multimedia concert by guitarist and composer Kaki King.
- Rooftop Rhythms, the Middle East’s longest-running open mic series for poets, musicians, and spoken word artists.
- The Storyville Mosquito, a live animated graphic novel performed and scored in real time by Kid Koala.
Perhaps one of the most anticipated productions is Flight, by Scottish theatre company Vox Motus. Hailed as “pulse-pounding, immersive story telling” by the New York Times, Flight unfolds as images and models slowly move past each audience member seated in their own viewing booth. Vox Motus adapted the piece from Caroline Brothers’ novel Hinterland, which all first-year NYU Abu Dhabi students will have read prior to arriving on campus. “As part of orientation, students will engage in discussion groups to talk deeply about the novel, which tells the migration story of two young refugee brothers from Afghanistan. Then the theatre piece will arrive to completely reframe the story, helping it become a deeper part of the University’s culture and common experience,” says Bragin.
A Unique Opportunity for Arts Education
While The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi is not an academic department, it is deliberate in its connection to and partnerships with NYU Abu Dhabi’s programs. Students and faculty in the University’s theatre and music programs perform in a range of the Arts Center’s productions, including the NYUAD Music Recitals Series and the annual mainstage student production. The professionals who perform at the Center also hold workshops and masterclasses and visit NYU Abu Dhabi classes to share their experience with students.
Because the Arts Center supports NYU Abu Dhabi’s commitment to interdisciplinary studies, it has been able to forge connections with a wider range of academic programs as well. “The arts are a way of seeing and knowing,” Bragin says. “Many of the pieces we present have strong ties to areas like public policy, engineering, and climate science. If a student is interested in a field that isn’t traditionally considered artistic, these performances help them understand that art is not separate from those areas.”
Additionally, all NYU Abu Dhabi students attend the Arts Center’s programs at no cost. The Center also reserves spots for students to perform in events like Rooftop Rhythms. Not only does this allow them to see more shows and perform in their own, but it also gives them the chance to connect with the Abu Dhabi community.
A Different Type of Community Connection
“Like the students at NYU Abu Dhabi, the population of Abu Dhabi is incredibly diverse,” says Bragin. “The Arts Center is a place where these different people come together to share experiences and create a common language.” Through this common language, University students and community members create relationships, share ideas, and experience growth—both artistically and personally.
The Arts Center is a clear reflection of the UAE’s interest in developing vibrant creative communities. It is also a major catalyst—along with the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Manara Al Saddiyat art and community space, and Warehouse421 cultural center—for the country’s continued artistic and cultural growth.
According to Bragin, this symbiotic relationship has a major influence on how he curates a season. He thinks about how an artist’s work will resonant with students, faculty, and the Abu Dhabi community, but more importantly, he considers the influence it will have on the creative community. “What I’m always excited to see is the art that students and locals create after they’ve seen so many different works,” Bragin says.