GUID­ING STAR

Harper's Bazaar (Arabia) - - The Highlights - Pho­tog­ra­phy by RICHARD HALL Words by EMILY BAX­TER

Why Alia Al Neyadi, the UAE’s first Emi­rati bal­le­rina, has all

the right moves

Ahead of Abu Dhabi Clas­sics next month, ALIA AL NEYADI, the UAE’s first Emi­rati bal­le­rina, tells Harper’s Bazaar why her up­com­ing show will be the per­for­mance of a life­time

Alia Al Neyadi in an épaule­ment croisé po­si­tion in the grounds

of Emi­rates Palace

Alia in a pas re­tiré pointé croisé po­si­tion

When Alia Al Neyadi was just three, there was a mo­ment, still vivid in her mind to­day, that she re­mem­bers fall­ing in love with bal­let for the first time. Her mother, Svet­lana Al Neyadi, was a suc­cess­ful Ukrainian bal­let dancer-turned-teacher, then teach­ing in New Or­leans. “I would tag along with my mum in my stroller to class, even when I was a lit­tle baby,” Alia re­calls. “And I re­mem­ber just sit­ting there and watch­ing her teach all the kids and do re­hearsals... And at one point, when I was able to walk, I just got out of the stroller and stood in the front row and started danc­ing. I knew from then that this was some­thing I had to do and I’ve been do­ing it ever since, for 20 years.”

That mo­ment, all those years ago, was the start of some­thing in­cred­i­bly spe­cial: a ca­reer in bal­let that would bring Alia to the UAE and be­stow upon her the ti­tle of ‘the first Emi­rati bal­le­rina’. It’s an ap­pel­la­tion that she dedicates, in no small part, to her mother.

Fol­low­ing a 20-year ca­reer as a bal­le­rina, and hav­ing moved from the States to the UAE af­ter she mar­ried, Svet­lana was in­vited in 1997 to teach bal­let cour­ses to chil­dren at the for­mer Cul­tural Foun­da­tion in Abu Dhabi. Classes of five quickly turned into classes of 25, and soon she’d cre­ated the re­gion’s first bal­let course at the chil­dren’s centre at the Cul­tural Foun­da­tion. It was here, amid frothy tu­tus and the sound of en pointe shoes clack­ing across the dance floor, that Alia was given her first real in­sight into the world of per­for­mance art.

“Per­form­ing arts is a huge part of my fam­ily,” Alia ex­plains. “My grand­mother was a jour­nal­ist, who wrote es­says about the per­form­ing arts, and she was fas­ci­nated with the bal­let world. It was her dream to be a bal­le­rina, but it was not to be, so when my mum ful­filled her ca­reer, and then I started danc­ing, she was very happy. I think she kind of lived her dream through us. I’m car­ry­ing on that legacy for her by be­ing the first per­former in the UAE as a bal­le­rina, and by also try­ing to make a dif­fer­ence in the Emi­rati com­mu­nity and so­ci­ety in gen­eral, to show them that [bal­let] is some­thing re­ally beau­ti­ful.”

In 1998, along­side Svet­lana’s work with the Cul­tural Foun­da­tion, Alia’s mother set up her own pri­vate bal­let school, Fan­ta­sia Bal­let in Abu Dhabi – with Alia, nat­u­rally, be­com­ing the first pupil. Now, as a veteran, 20 years later, Alia says, “Our main aim is to en­cour­age all young stu­dents to hope­fully, in the long-run, per­form and be­come part of our en­sem­ble group. But re­ally, we just want to en­cour­age any­one who wants to learn about bal­let to come and try this art and see that it’s some­thing we’re re­ally pas­sion­ate about.”

Hav­ing danced for most of her life, un­der her mother’s nur­tur­ing eye, Alia fully un­der­stands the dis­ci­plinar­ian de­mands of a ca­reer in bal­let – rig­or­ous train­ing reg­i­mens, strict di­ets, reg­i­mented re­hearsal sched­ules, miss­ing out on all the normal child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences of her peers... “From a young age it taught me dis­ci­pline and I think that is ex­tremely im­por­tant, be­cause I’ve learned that when the go­ing gets tough, to just keep go­ing,” she ex­plains. “I’ve al­ways been taught to push my­self, to do bet­ter, be­cause there’s no ‘best’ in bal­let, there’s no top and no firsts, it’s just about get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter. These are morals that we have in our life and it re­ally gave me strength,” she says. “I soon learned that I wasn’t miss­ing out on much,” she says. “And to be hon­est, I don’t think I’d be the same per­son that I am now with­out bal­let. It shapes you, it gives you the value of life.”

Since her ca­reer be­gan 20 years ago with Fan­ta­sia Bal­let, Alia has ac­com­plished many ‘firsts’ to be proud of. “I take huge pride in be­ing [a stu­dent of ] this first bal­let school, be­cause we did things at our age that no one in the UAE had done. We went at the age of 15 to the Ukraine and the States to com­pete and rep­re­sented the first Mid­dle East coun­try among 50 oth­ers all from around Eu­rope,” she re­calls. “I re­mem­ber every­one say­ing ‘Wow, the UAE, where’s that?’ Every­one was al­ways re­ally in­ter­ested in see­ing us per­form be­cause I think there was a mis­con­cep­tion that per­haps we weren’t go­ing to be very good, that we came from a rich coun­try that was all about oil, but they were shocked. We proved that we have much more to of­fer, that we’re also rich in culture. I think every­one re­alised that we have the same pas­sion and this is what unites us.”

Nat­u­rally, where there are highs, there are lows and no ca­reer is free of chal­lenges. For Alia, most of them de­rived from mis­con­cep­tion and mis­un­der­stand­ing. “Be­cause bal­let teaches you dis­ci­pline, I’ve al­ways been able to ap­pre­ci­ate every­one’s opin­ion and crit­i­cisms,” she says. “For me, most of those crit­i­cisms came from peo­ple who didn’t un­der­stand what I did.” And while there is much press about Zahra Lari, the UAE’s first fe­male ice-skater, and Nahla Al Rosta­mani, the UAE’s first fe­male For­mula 1 driver, bal­let ap­pears to war­rant fewer col­umn inches, per­haps, says Alia, be­cause it’s not yet seen as a pro­fes­sion. “We have a fe­male boxer, ice-skater, F1 race car driver, pian­ist, opera singer... We have so many fe­male Emi­rati ladies that are do­ing things, and we all face our chal­lenges, but ev­ery­thing that we do is beneficial to the UAE. I’m just try­ing to show every­one that you should do what you want to do be­cause so many UAE ladies are afraid to pur­sue some­thing they

“As­long as whaty­oudo come s from

the­heart, as­lon­gas you have sup­port,you­can

ac­com­plish any­thing. ams are big,and ” dre you’r ur life to­ful­fil

einthis them Yo

Alia Al Neyadi

re­ally like be­cause they know it’s not a pro­fes­sion in the UAE. Maybe some­one wants to be a pain­ter, for ex­am­ple, but that’s not con­sid­ered a pro­fes­sion. But it could be, you know. I think it takes a lot of time and pa­tience.”

Pa­tience is also re­quired when field­ing ques­tions from those who chal­lenge what she does – or doesn’t – wear on stage. For ex­am­ple, off-stage she chooses to wear an abaya and hi­jab, on-stage Alia wears a cos­tume that changes de­pen­dent on her per­for­mance; the lat­ter prov­ing a bone of con­tention for some, she says. “As an Emi­rati lady, when you go out, you wear an abaya, the tra­di­tional at­tire, so peo­ple ask me how can I then wear some­thing, an out­fit, that they deem as ‘re­veal­ing’ on stage? My an­swer is that the Alia per­sona on stage is com­pletely dif­fer­ent to the ‘me’ in real life. On stage, I’m who­ever I have to be in that story. I play a char­ac­ter, and to play that with emo­tion, for me to re­ally feel it, and to have the au­di­ence re­ally feel it, I have to em­body that char­ac­ter. Yes, there’s a Mus­lim Aus­tralian bal­le­rina [Stephanie Kur­low] who wears the shayla, but I see that as a com­plete per­sonal pref­er­ence. I don’t wear it be­cause when I dance I need to feel free. And for me to feel free, it’s about per­sonal choice. I don’t think bal­let is po­lit­i­cal. It’s sup­posed to be fun and I shouldn’t have to think about re­li­gion when I’m do­ing it, be­cause it’s about free­dom and por­tray­ing a beau­ti­ful art. It takes a lot of time for peo­ple to un­der­stand that, but I think they’re com­ing around now.”

Alia’s pas­sion for cel­e­brat­ing the arts and culture of the Emi­rates is in part thanks to a youth spent sur­rounded by a world of per­form­ing arts in Abu Dhabi and the wider world, but also down to her in­formed ed­u­ca­tional choices. Hav­ing com­pleted Mid­dle and High School in Abu Dhabi, Alia stud­ied at Zayed Univer­sity, opt­ing for a new ma­jor in Culture & So­ci­ety. “At that time, [the univer­sity] didn’t have any­thing in the per­form­ing arts, so for my ma­jor, I had to go a lit­tle more broad,” she re­calls. “I was still very fas­ci­nated by the Emi­rati culture and its her­itage, and I knew I needed to study it fur­ther in or­der to un­der­stand it bet­ter if I wanted to change the cul­tural scene in the fu­ture.” Hav­ing grad­u­ated two years ago, and with a one-year ‘sabbatical’ from dance, Alia has just com­pleted her first year work­ing in the Depart­ment of Culture & Tourism in Abu Dhabi. Her vi­sion is to study her Masters, ei­ther in London or the States, to pur­sue fur­ther knowl­edge of the per­form­ing arts, be­cause “I feel like my mis­sion is ba­si­cally to guide the UAE when it comes to the cul­tural scene,” Alia says. “When I was per­form­ing at the age of seven, there were ab­so­lutely no kids here who did what I was do­ing. No one did. No one even knew what bal­let was. My first per­for­mance was at the Cul­tural Foun­da­tion, a land­mark cre­ated by HH Sheikh Zayed, so I was re­ally at the root of the cul­tural scene in the UAE – I was there, I was part of it, I saw how it started. So I think that I re­ally have that ex­pe­ri­ence and that kind of knowl­edge to show and share.”

Far from hang­ing up her pointe shoes to pur­sue a dif­fer­ent ca­reer, this is just Alia’s way of en­sur­ing that the fu­ture of bal­let – and the wider per­form­ing arts – in the UAE be­comes a field that is recog­nised, cel­e­brated and in­vested in. “I al­ways hear peo­ple in the Depart­ment of Culture & Tourism talk­ing about how im­por­tant and rich the UAE culture is and how im­por­tant it is to have all these dif­fer­ent fields... We have the Lou­vre, and the up­com­ing Guggen­heim and the Zayed Na­tional Mu­seum, and soon, the Per­form­ing Arts Centre. It’s all very culture-fo­cused and I think that was why I knew [the Depart­ment of Culture & Tourism] was the place I had to go af­ter grad­u­at­ing.”

From her desk to the dance hall, Alia is forg­ing a path for fu­ture artis­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tion and cul­tural cel­e­bra­tion, of her own and those who fol­low in her dance steps. Next month, on April 20, Alia em­barks on a one night-only per­for­mance at Emi­rates Palace for the Abu Dhabi Clas­sics sea­son. The 24-year-old will per­form in a one-of-a-kind bal­let with iconic mar­ried Bol­shoi Theatre soloists, Ivan Vasiliev and Maria Vino­gradova. “How many peo­ple can say that?” She smiles. “It’s a real hon­our but an ex­tremely ter­ri­fy­ing one at the same time. It’s a chal­lenge, but I love chal­leng­ing my­self more and more ev­ery day. I’ve learnt, ever since start­ing bal­let, that no­body is go­ing to push you – you have to do that your­self. You have to find that side of you that tells you ‘when it gets hard, don’t give up’. You have to do what­ever you have to do to be the best ver­sion of your­self.”

Her words carry weight, which is why she chooses them care­fully, es­pe­cially in her po­si­tion as men­tor and role model to young girls, from the dance stu­dio to so­cial me­dia. “I get asked a lot about how I stay mo­ti­vated, es­pe­cially when I have had, at times, peo­ple telling me not to do some­thing. I told one girl re­cently, that as long as it comes from your heart, as long as you have sup­port, you can ac­com­plish any­thing. Your dreams are big and you’re in this life to ful­fil them.”

While she’s a fig­ure­head for young fe­males break­ing into bal­let, Alia looks to the ros­ter of Emi­rati women now tak­ing seat in min­is­te­rial po­si­tions to in­spire her own jour­ney. “Noura Al Kaabi [UAE Min­is­ter of Culture and Knowl­edge De­vel­op­ment] has done so much for the cul­tural scene, so I of course look up to her,” she says. “Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi was the head of Zayed Univer­sity when I stud­ied there, so she has been an ex­tremely im­por­tant part of my life; Shamma Al Mazrui [UAE Min­is­ter of State for Youth Af­fairs] and Dr Amal Al Qubaisi [pres­i­dent of the Fed­eral Na­tional Coun­cil, and the re­gion’s first fe­male leader of a na­tional as­sem­bly]… All these women are ex­tremely loud and vo­cal and present and their opin­ions mat­ter, and I think that makes them very in­spi­ra­tional be­cause they make changes that re­ally count. Hav­ing seen what they’ve all achieved, it shows me, as an Emi­rati, that you can do what­ever you want, what­ever path you see ahead of you, if you have faith you can achieve any­thing.”

Her faith, she says, is un­wa­ver­ing, de­spite it too be­ing called into ques­tion. “For many peo­ple [in the Emi­rates], bal­let is some­thing new – they have no ed­u­ca­tion about it, so it’s taken many years for peo­ple to un­der­stand that it’s not in­ter­fer­ing with my re­li­gious views and it’s not in­ter­fer­ing in my life as an Emi­rati lady. I re­ally be­lieve that what I do doesn’t af­fect my re­li­gious faith. In fact, my faith is strong. From when I was lit­tle, I was al­ways told that it’s im­por­tant to pray, that it’s im­por­tant to be­lieve in God and to thank God for ev­ery­thing that you have in your life. My grand­mother also taught me that even when some­thing is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult, with God’s sup­port you will get through any­thing. And I think be­cause of that, my faith has only been made stronger.”

While it is the pas­sion and am­bi­tion of Alia’s youth that earned her the ti­tle of ‘first Emi­rati bal­le­rina’ 20 years ago, it will be her faith that will take Alia for­ward on her quest to open peo­ple’s eyes to the beauty of bal­let and trans­form the per­cep­tion of per­form­ing arts here, in our home­land, for gen­er­a­tions to come.

“I don’t think bal­let is po­lit­i­cal. It’s sup­posed to be fun, be­cause it’s about free­dom and por­tray­ing a beau­ti­ful art”

Alia Al Neyadi

Alia in a tour piqué into third arabesque

Ear­rings, Dhs2,670, Stella McCart­ney

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