Monday, December 30, 2013

DMI shoots landmark Dubai Laughing Pilot

Adnan Nalwala, Nitin Mirani and Khalid Khalifa

Dubai's comedy scene ended the year on a milestone, with a pilot being shot by Dubai Media Inc for what we all hope will be the first locally-sourced and -produced English-language stand-up comedy TV series. A diverse cast drawn from among some of the most prolific stand-up comedians in Dubai -- Omar Shams, Salman Qureshi, Maher "Jokah" Barwany and Rayan H Karaky -- were in the lineup of Dubai Laughing, emceed by Komic Sutra's Nitin Mirani.

Being a studio audience member at the pilot shoot was much more fun than my last experience in a studio audience, which was for Judge Mathis. I had a genuinely good time; there were lots of sincere laughs despite having already heard some of the material from the same performers at various open mics and comedy shows around Dubai. It also gave me an opportunity to see a couple of acts I had not previously seen, including some clever jokes by Saudi comic Khalid Khalifa, and the animated humor of Indian comic Adnan Nalwala.

An additional note of praise should be reserved for local thespian Gordon Torbet, in recognition of his valiant (and not infrequently effective) efforts to warm us up and keep us warmed up during breaks and while production issues were being sorted out.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Izzy Abidi and Physical Graffiti at Roseleaf Cafe Acoustic Saturdays

My late discovery of the week: there seems to be a weekly acoustic evening going on every Saturday at 4pm in Dubai Garden Centre. The one I attended was a double feature, with solo singer-songwriter and guitarist "Izzy" Abidi alternating short sets with folk acoustic band Physical Graffiti, whom I also heard recently at an open mic. It's not a long event, running a little over an hour, and thus fitting nicely between Saturday's afternoon and evening plans. And it was a rather enjoyable hour, including restyled covers of pop hits like "Royals" and "Poker Face" (by Abidi) and "Somebody That I Used To Know" (by Physical Graffiti), some originals, and a valiant improvisation attempt by Physical Graffiti. The Roseleaf Cafe, at which the event takes place, is also good for coffee and light edibles.

The Afif Jazz Quintet at PizzaExpress JLT

Weekend jazz nights are back, with the Afif brothers leading a new quintet that plays at the JLT PizzaExpress every Friday night. Drummer Rony Afif, bassist Elie Afif, and saxophonist Jino Kim have teamed up with guitarist Max Itani and saxophonist Joaquin Sosa, creating a brand new sound.

The band doesn't have a pianist or organist at the moment, although Itani bridged that gap quite well with his guitar work. The inclusion of a second sax player in Sosa also meant some great segments of reed harmonization -- one of the best features of the musical output of this configuration.

As far as the new venue goes, it's quite different from the old dark and cozy bar atmosphere; the band is now playing in a more dining-oriented (but still licensed) space. It's compensated for, however, with more room onstage, and the pizza being actually very good. There's also an outdoor section for those who smoke, making it much more pleasant inside for those who don't. And it's in the heart of New Dubai, which also makes it a short ride away for me.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Off Topic Japanese Carnival at Safa Park

I've never been to Safa Park on a pleasant Friday afternoon during winter holidays, but it seemed like everybody and their second cousin were there (a parking situation not helped by the closure of the old Gate 5 parking zone). Still, I had come all that way in my new yukata, so I managed to find a semi-legal space and spend the afternoon at Off Topic's second Japanese Carnival

Several kiosks had been set up in the enclosure, (not sure why there was an enclosure, since there seemed to be no ticketing) selling all manner of Japanese paraphernalia and manga merchandise, including some by groups from out of town, and a few artists' booths. There was, oddly, no tea or Pocky (!) to be seen in the venue, although Off Topic arranged for some Japanese food boxes to be peddled about by costumed manga maid and butlers (I think it was some kind of a competition), and there was a mochi ice cream vendor.

A couple of Japanese artists were on hand to demonstrate traditional dance and drawing arts.

There was also a sizable cosplay contingent, including some extremely elaborate kits.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Art exhibition Gentle by Jonathan Gent at XVA

The Jonathan Gent painting exhibition, Gentle, is on display at the XVA Gallery (now contiguous with the XVA Art Hotel) until the end of next month. I dropped by the Bastakiya al Al Fahidi this weekend to have a look (and to watch a film that did not end up screening, but there was some good vegetarian food at the cafe to compensate).

The subject matter is drawn from the artist's experiences as a visitor in the region -- and especially in Dubai -- about 5 years ago. Those of us who live here will recognize much of the imagery depicted in his mental snapshots and  impressions from his exploration of the city. Some of these have been reduced to the barest elements, while some have been fleshed out in further detail and color (while yet retaining a minimal style).

The works have been painted on raw wood veneer, lending them a unique texture. This is especially evident in the more drawing-like ones; the lines on the boards are interrupted and pushed out by the wood grain over which they are painted.

Check it out!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Youth talent at the GYEM Open Mic Nite

It's the kind of talent you won't see at your neighborhood bar's open mic -- primarily because most of these kids would not be allowed in. And there is plenty of talent, given a public platform once in a while thanks to the Global Youth Empowerment (GYEM), one of the city's culture hubs for young 'uns.

The event at thejamjar went over half an hour beyond its planned closing time, as act after act took turns on the stage to entertain several dozen attendees with usually great music and positive messages. One could witness a diverse range of instrumental and vocal abilities in multiple genres, from the likes of Scott Attew, Physical Graffiti and David Beats Goliath. There was also a little beatboxing and a lot of rap, including some Arabic rap, a bit of rap theatre, and a stunning rap-off near the end. It was a serious display of talent, and a testament to the drive of those too young to drive, impressing even a borderline fogey like me.

Cooking Filipino for a Pinoy Pasko feast

The long-awaited publication of my thesis offshoot research came to be this year, with Dsouza, S., Gal, Y., Pasquier, P., Abdallah, S., and Rahwan, I. (2013), "Reasoning about goal revelation in human negotiation", IEEE Intelligent Systems, vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 74-80, March-April, 2013 finally making it to press. As first author, I felt obliged to be the host for the celebratory get-together. By the time we all got our hard copies and the case was finally closed, it was close to year-end, and I thought "Why not make it a Christmas lunch?".

Decked my hall with color-coordinated decorations, as usual, and my "Christmas bamboo".

As for the choice of the cuisine, I have long nursed the ambition to prepare a traditional Filipino Christmas sweet as part of my Christmas cooking experiments. Seeing as I was going to host a meal, I decided to make it the dessert, and just make the whole meal Filipino. To set the mood, I tuned the radio to local Filipino radio station TAG 91.1, and poured some Filipino coconut water as a welcome drink for my party of 5.

My menu was to consist of dishes that were as uniquely Filipino as possible -- no kaldereta or pancit here. I chose to start with a special Filipino dish: sinigang, a tamarind-flavored soup. I started by dropping 5 small quartered tomatoes and two medium chopped red onions into a pot, adding 8 cups of water to boil.

I then added and simmered boneless pieces of two medium milkfish (bangus, a Filipino favorite) for 10 minutes, followed by 8 large pinches of tamarind pulp for another 5.

Finally, I added about 200g cut string beans (sitaw), a large bundle of cut spinach (could not find kangkong) and four whole long green peppers (siling haba).

Served hot and seasoned with Filipino fish sauce (patis), this was delicious and appetizing, and went very well with shrimp crackers. A great start to the meal, and extremely simple to make.

Another uniquely Filipino dish is pinakbet, a vegetable stew from the northern part of the country. You can actually get the ingredient veggies for this neatly cut and packed at Filipino-oriented supermarkets. It's just a bittermelon (karela, to Indians), two Japanese eggplants, a couple of cups of okra, a small squash, a bunch of sitaw, and a tomato --- all cut into broad chunks -- with a finely chopped red onion. I topped all this in a pot with 4 tbsp sauteed shrimp paste (bagoong), and cooked them with a cup of water for about 20 minutes, until the vegetables were tender.

Adding 400g shrimp and a little more shrimp paste in the last few minutes of cooking rounded things off to make a colorful and tasty dish.

A Filipino feast specialty is kare kare, a peanut-based stew of oxtail with vegetables. For this, I put 750g oxtail pieces in a pot with three quartered small red onions, three finely chopped cloves of garlic, and a teaspoon each of salt and pepper, with enough water to cover everything. I simmered this for about 3 hours, skimming fat and foam off the top, until the oxtail was tender.

I then stirred in chunks of a large eggplant, two small heads of bok choy, and a large bunch of sitaw, for about 20 minutes of further simmering, before adding 6 tbsp of creamy peanut butter (stirred into the broth in a separate bowl first).

It's a bit fatty, but the oxtail meat is extremely tender and tasty, and the peanut broth goes well with white rice.

And what Filipino feast would be complete without adobo, the "unofficial national dish" of the Philippines? A simple dish as it was, I made it by mixing 265 ml soy sauce, 265 ml water, 135 ml vinegar, 40 ml honey, 2 tbsp minced garlic, 4 bay leaves and 1 tsp black pepper, and simmering a kilo of chicken pieces in this for about 45 minutes.

I then drained and grilled the chicken while I discarded the bay leaves and simmered the remaining liquid down to about a cup, pouring it over the grilled chicken to serve. Second helpings were requested at the dinnertable, so I guess it can't have been too bad.

Finally, the reason for the meal of the season: bibingka, the quintessential Filipino Christmas cake. I stirred a cup of brown sugar into 50g of melted butter to start.

I mixed 2 cups of rice flour, a tablespoon of baking powder and a half teaspoon of salt into the butter and sugar, and stirred in 400ml of dessert-type coconut milk with 6 tbsp of fresh milk to make a toffee-colored batter.

I baked this at 190C for about 35 minutes (if I could find banana leaves, I would have lined the pan with those), taking it out midway to top with grated edam cheese (another Filipino Christmas thing).

Cooled, brushed with butter, and topped with more brown sugar and fresh grated coconut, it was much appreciated by guests, served to them as it was with the Filipino traditional Christmas ginger tea salabat (2 inches pounded fresh ginger and 2 tbsp brown sugar, boiled into 4 cups of water).

I hope this inspires some of you to try making some of these. All the best, and Maligayang Pasko (Merry Christmas)!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Comedy Dubai Xmas standup at Bidi Bondi

Russell Bell

Snapping up stragglers of the holiday exodus, Comedy Dubai's final monthly stand-up show of 2013 took place at Bidi Bondi Palm Jumeirah's grill terrace, with light jacket weather just starting to creep in. Some hilariously risque bits included in the sets of Omar Shams and Feyaza Khan set a naughty mood, and closing act Russell Bell killed with his well-tuned material and his physical expressiveness. Sheida Ibrahim also deserves special mention for the interesting gamboo3a bit.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

AUD faculty project Year Zero exhibited at DUCTAC

I checked out the five-day Year Zero exhibition in its final hours last week. The collaborative project, on display at the Gallery of Light in DUCTAC, was composed of the works of Prof. Dina Faour, Dr. Sandra Alexander, and Dr. Jerry Legé -- all American University in Dubai faculty, and each representing artistic, philosophical and mathematical dimensions to this visual discussion of remembrance and reconciliation. I especially like the photo series placing words and images in the context of past conflict. The twin chalkboard piece, on which philosophical/mathematical analyses of 0 were jotted, was also very interesting.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Backstage short play night at Cartoon Art Gallery

Backstage's weekend of short plays at Cartoon Art Gallery began tonight with two Alex Broun minis and one hour-long by Woody Allen. There were some good scripts to look forward to, so I had high hopes.

Alas, the first play, Exiting, came out quite obviously jinxed. There was often insufficient -- and sometimes, even incoherent -- projection of dialogue, especially at the beginning, and especially from the slimmer of the two actors (who also seemed to wear a permanent smirk, regardless of what was going on with his character). His costar did a much better job with his character, saving the play somewhat. Of course, little could be done by the actors about the fact that both twists were pretty much given away in the program. The second play, Selling Johnny Depp, turned out a bit better, although the actors, especially the male ones, could really have done much more in terms of emoting.



The post-interval Woody Allen play, Death, was a refreshing breath of good theatre, though. With effort put into ensuring visibly good production value, and generally good acting and directing, it was about as entertaining as a play with that script should be. Apart from one instance of thick accent obscuring lines (especially given the acoustics at the venue) and a few fumbles, the delivery was good all around. My only recommendation: I would have preferred more Woody-esque deadpan from the lead character, rather than near-constant wide-eyed shock. Overall, Backstage pulled off a good job with this one; I wish the preceding ones were done as well.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Alliance Francaise stages Exercices de Style at Courtyard Playhouse

Congratulations to The Courtyard Playhouse on its first theatrical performance by an external party: a three-show weekend staging of Raymond Queneau's Exercices de Style by the Alliance Francaise Dubai. My high school knowledge of French gave me but minimal comprehension of the Rashomon-like plot development in this French-language farce. Even so, I was impressed by the acting and production, and entertained to some extent by the onstage energy and physical comedy.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Verse, vibe and Will at Rooftop Rhythms #17

A strange confluence of non-events permitted me a Friday evening free enough to drive down to Abu Dhabi and join the wordsmiths of the city's Rooftop Rhythms at their 17th open mic, at the Hilton Capital Grand.


The organizer/emcee, Dorian, kept the energy up with charm and (sometimes deliberately groansome) humor, and the DJ set the mood with some wonderfully bouncy tunes. The weather was pleasant enough for the outdoor poolside section of the rooftop bar venue to be opened up -- a good thing too, because a LOT of people turned up. A projector above the stage played a (slightly distracting when performances were in progress) slideshow of images from what I presume were past open mics.

Will McInerney

We listened to several spoken word pieces about family, technology, love, and such; many of these were very relatable and clever. A couple of my favorites were the ones about sibling relationships and the one about GPS (in the case of the latter, until it started getting preachy well beyond the ceremonial deism threshold). In addition to the spoken, some sung and others rapped, adding further diversity to the talent buffet. Visiting American spoken word celebrity Will McInerney was also at the event, and delighted us with a few intense performances.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Burning Fresh with Loom Ensemble at thejamjar

After my third foiled attempt at attending the monthly "Theatre-making" workshops by Dubai performing arts newcomers, Loom Ensemble, I was determined to not miss the post-workshop performance. I saw a little snippet of it at thejamjar at the end of one of 3rd Mondays' August event, so I was curious to see how it was progressing. Chart course to Dubai, warp 9.

The performance is, after all, an evolving work, and the first I've seen in Dubai to follow a prototyping model with public participation. And we did have an open chat right after with the Ensemble's Raphael Sacks and Neva Cockrell, who were also the sole performers of the piece.

The contemporary play, titled Burning Fresh began with a preview of a song segment and dance segment from later in the play. Moving along, it incorporated a lot of mime, dance and physical theatre around the lines, punctuated by haunting a capella singing, occasionally with sometimes-awkward audience participation. The latter, along with the extent to which the performance should or should not develop its story (yes, it has one) were debated after the performance, among other topics. The play is not due to be staged for a few more months, so it will surely see some more moulding and whittling before then.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Dubai Drama Group stages Steven Berkoff's Metamorphosis at thejamjar

Dubai Drama Group's production of Metamorphosis premiered yesterday at thejamjarA Steven Berkoff adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, it's a tight staging that runs about an uninterrupted hour in length, at a pace that swung between frenetic and placid.

Faraz Javed, Beariz Browne and Lucasta Cummings

Mostly stage right, the characters of Mr, Mrs and Greta Samsa locked horns or wrung hands about their insect problem. Lucasta Cummings as Mrs Samsa was my favorite among them; I felt a very convincing portrayal of maternal concern, confusion and inner torment from her.

Yasmin Altas, Daniel Wakefield and Hani Yakan

Mostly stage left, Yasmin Altas and Hani Yakan had minor speaking roles as a boarder and a chief clerk, respectively, but played very important parts as the drives and emotional state of Gregor Samsa. Gregor's dejection, loneliness and resignation as a dutiful workaholic, and later, a "bug with a heart", were portrayed brilliantly by Daniel Wakefield, who was able to do this in sometimes challenging positions. Combining his powerful monologues with the physical expressions of Yakan and Altas, the three made for a compelling and visually dominating Gregor.

Directors: Emma Kay and Aimée Hedley

Overall, I found it a fairly enjoyable play, with some interesting use of theatrical techniques. The stage area was bereft of walls or backdrops, and featured minimal props, relying mainly on movement and mime to imply the existence of rooms (and transitions among them) and objects. The cast also broke fourth wall to indicate shifts across time, and the available lighting was put to creative use. We see too little of this form of theatre in Dubai, so I hope there's more of it to come.

Monday, November 25, 2013

UAENSO vocal-piano star concert at Brighton College

The UAE National Symphony Orchestra organized a special vocal-piano concert today at Brighton College Abu Dhabi, featuring the actor-singer Gretchen Hewitt performing to the skilled key work of capital-based Ioannis Potamousis ("the other Yanni").

Ioannis Potamousis

The concert, in support of The Future Centre for Special Needs, and titled "Con Anima", included guest solo and choir performances, a breathtaking classic solo by Potamousis, some established opera pieces, and a number of Hewitt originals. I think the concert had been truncated somewhere, though; some portion of the official program seemed to be missing.

Gretchen Hewitt

While I attended primarily as a piano fan -- to see the acclaimed, award-winning Potamousis in action -- I was also much entertained by Hewitt's operatic acting and soprano. Putting them together made for a great onstage pair and an awesome concert.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Courtyard Playhouse inaugurated with first ever MENA Theatresports

The Courtyard Playhouse, Dubai's landmark community theater and studio space, has been a venue for rehearsals and workshops for months. Those of us who took part in these activities saw floors, ceilings, walls, partitions, seats, fittings, lights and flats appear, one by one, week on week, as artists and donors* contributed their time and money* towards putting the place together.

Don't it look swankayyy?

This weekend, the Playhouse finally opened its doors to the public with a double act, double show, double night theater event. Most aptly, this event happened to be the first ever Theatresports event in the MENA region, put on by the first ever recognized Theatresports member organization in the MENA region - Drama Dubai.

Why, yes, that is me on the left

I and six other live improv neophytes, followed by six of the more experienced troupe members, competed with each other in teams of three to four, hoping to win the audience's favor and the coveted shrub of glory (no, really, it was a shrub) with our improvised games and scene work. I was fortunate to be part of a great team, which, win or lose, made the experience as fun for me as I hope it was for the audience.

With our grand entrances and costumes, good-natured rivalry, and outrageous scenarios in mundane settings, we had ourselves a whale of a time.

So did the successive full or near-full houses of cheering, yelling, laughing and otherwise involved audience members, it would seem. Technically, almost everything went much smoother than I would have expected for a first-time run of back-to-back unscripted shows.

The rest of the cast during the techs

I'm so proud to have been a part of this; it was history in the making that we witnessed over the last couple of nights, and it's only the beginning.

* The Drama Dubai team has thrown herculean effort behind getting the space working well enough and looking good enough, starting from practically scratch, so patrons could enjoy the experience of a real theater in the heart of Al Quoz. Because of all the resources that went into making it look and feel good at the audience-facing end, there are still a few things to finish backstage, which is where we still need a little more financial assistance. Click here to see how you can help, and to see the neat rewards donors can receive.