The Art Center at NYUAD To Host World Premiere of PETTEE: storybox

Devised by Deepak Unnikrishnan and presented with the support of Dance Reflections by Van Cleef and Arpels, the groundbreaking dance performance was commissioned by The Arts Center. The show will offer visitors an immersive journey into a world of movement, music, and flight

The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi has commissioned the world premiere of PETTEE: storybox, a groundbreaking performance, written and directed by acclaimed writers Deepak Unnikrishnan and Karthika Naïr. The performance, presented with the support of Dance Reflections by Van Cleef & Arpels, will be held on Thursday and Friday, April 18-19, at 7:15pm in The Red Theater, starting in The East Plaza.

PETTEE: storybox blurs the lines between stage and audience, open air and theater. In languages that are home to hundreds of millions of people (Malayalam, Tamil, Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi)  PETTEE embodies words such as casket, crate, and suitcase. But the meaning that almost everyone recognizes instantly is container – containers we carry, containers that contain us.

The word is a spirit animal for human beings with rootlessness and displacement in their blood, those dreaming of possibilities. Writers Deepak Unnikrishnan and Karthika Naïr invited a host of artists from various horizons in their attempt to give those dreams shape and song.

Joining them in making PETTEE are composer Sarathy Korwar with his musicians, set and lighting designer Willy Cessa, illustrator Appupen (George Mathen), and rigger-prop maker Simon Nyiringabo, along with virtuosic choreographers/performers Wanjuro Kamuyu, Saju Hari and Ali Ben Lotfi Thabet who weave a fresh movement language from the everyday word.

Executive Artistic Director at The Arts Center at NYUAD Bill Bragin commented: “We were really inspired when Deepak Unnikrishnan approached us with the idea of creating his first dance piece. He’s one of the UAE’s leading literary figures, as well as NYU Abu Dhabi faculty, looking at issues of Gulf migration with a sharp eye and a mischievous and fantastical sensibility. His collaborator Karthika Nair recently taught at NYUAD and worked as a dramaturg on Mehek by Aakash Odedra & AditiMangaldas, which we presented in February. Together they have assembled an all-star transnational team of interdisciplinary collaborators that we are excited to see perform. Commissioning new work is always an adventure, and turning over The Red Theater for a month so they can develop the new work is a noticeable investment by NYU Abu Dhabi in creative development.”

Associate Arts Professor at NYUAD, Deepak Unnikrishnan, added: “Text has dominated stories about bodies like mine in the Gulf. I wanted to look elsewhere. Intentionally, turned to a discipline that viewed the literal body as a punctuation mark, a sentence, a thought. But I needed help.  

The choreographers of Pettee – Saju Hair, Wanjiru Kamuyu and Ali Thabet – come from movement disciplines as varied as the circus arts, martial arts and Broadway. Their knowledge has given the project a different set of vocabularies and registers to think about experiences not only relevant to the Gulf, but also elsewhere.  

I know what to do with the page. I am working with dancers and musicians who are helping me learn what to do with the stage.”

French-Indian poet, playwright, fabulist, and dance scenarist, Karthika Nair, said: “I read Deepak Unnikrishnan’s novel Temporary People years before we met. Within a few chapters — perhaps even pages — I knew. Here was writing that danced off the page, writing that sang in multiple tongues, that detonatedthe frontiers of literary convention. Writing that felt like home. 

My world revolves around dance. And while I never expected Deepak to pick a performative piece as our intended collaboration, it feels somehow right, and inevitable. As right, and inevitable, as the process of making PETTEE with this particular team. Willy Cessa, Simon Nyiringabo, Sarathy Korwar, Appupen, the three choreographers — whose work I have been watching, entranced, for years… PETTEE is the experience it is, on and off stage, thanks to their exceptional talent, but also their giant hearts.”

Audiences can expect an immersive journey into a world of movement, music, and flight, where bodies unbend, lunge, and soar to unseal and unpack years of youth. PETTEE: storybox promises to transport visitors into a realm where multiple futures, each magical, seem possible. 

On April 18, attendees will also have the opportunity to engage with the artists during a post-show Q&A session moderated by George Jose, Visiting Associate Professor of Anthropology at NYU Abu Dhabi.