Ballerina embodies UAE’s drive to become regional cultural hub

Alia Al-Neyadi, the first Emirati ballerina, discovered her passion for performing when she was three. (Supplied)
Updated 23 November 2019

Ballerina embodies UAE’s drive to become regional cultural hub

  • Alia Al-Neyadi discovered her passion for performing when she was only three years old
  • Along with her mother, Al-Neyadi would train four to six times a week to master every move

DUBAI: Ballet is more than just dance. Practising it requires talent, grace, persistence, hard work and excellent training.

For 26-year-old Alia Al-Neyadi, all these elements were present at a very young age. The first Emirati ballerina discovered her passion for performing when she was only three.

“I honestly cannot remember a time when I was not dancing. Ever since I was a toddler, I would sit in my stroller and watch my mother train young girls at the studio. I remember one day walking up to the front of her class and simply twirling,” recalls the young star.

Coming from an artistic background, Al-Neyadi was always surrounded by dance. Her mother, Svetlana, first visited the UAE in the late 1980s, when she was invited to perform in Al-Ain with the Moscow ballet company.

This is where she met Abdalla Al-Neyadi, the father of the future dance sensation. “I like to think that ballet is a family affair when it comes to us,” said Al-Neyadi.

“My parents are my biggest supporters. They both appreciate the art of ballet, and they have supported me every step of the way. My mother was both my mother and my instructor.

“I remember and still joke with everyone how if she is calm, she talks to me in English, but if she is getting tough, she goes all Russian on me, and that is when you know it is getting intense.”

For 20 years, Al-Neyadi and her mother motivated each other to achieve great things. In 1998, Svetlana opened a world-class ballet institution, Fantasia Ballet, in the heart of Abu Dhabi, teaching young ballerinas in the emirate the art of Russian ballet.

Al-Neyadi, along with her mother, would train four to six times a week to master every move. “The discipline in ballet helped me test my limits. While I did miss out on some childhood experiences, ballet has shaped me into the person I am today,” she said.

When she was 15, Al-Neyadi obtained the support of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage to represent the UAE at an international arts festival held in Ukraine.

The teenage ballerina placed third, stunning everyone. “People were amazed that the UAE had a ballet troupe so skilled as to come third out of 140 countries,” she said.

“It was such an honor that at this young age, I was doing something to make my country proud. It was not easy, but it was worth it.”

The holder of a bachelor’s degree from Zayed University, Al-Neyadi majored in international affairs in culture and society because she felt there was no “better way to enable change than going back to where it all began in the UAE — the people.”

Things did not always go smoothly for the ballerina during her nearly 20 years of dancing.

“Explaining myself to people when I first started was probably my biggest challenge. Being an Arab, Muslim, Emirati who wanted to pursue dancing professionally was unheard of. I had to show people I was not there to insult but rather unite,” she said.

“At the age of 16, I felt fiercely attacked, but my family and loved ones taught me patience and pushed me further. Today, dancing means everything to me. I express myself through dance and convey emotions through twirls. If you leave one of my performances feeling like I’ve emotionally touched you, I have done my job.”

The UAE has come a long way since Al-Neyadi’s beginning, and the local performing arts scene is thriving. “Through my work as a Cultural Curator at Abu Dhabi’s Department of Tourism and Culture, I was able to get more involved with the art scene,” Al-Neyadi said.

“A lot of people do not know this, but in Sharjah, we have a very active performing arts scene, with an academy dedicated only to performing arts and a strong theater program.

“We are hoping to transform the UAE into a cultural stop and with its own opera house with a resident ballet, music and opera troupe performing year-round. This is definitely going to take some time, but I have dedicated myself to making this dream a reality.”

 

• This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.


Five Arab films that have won international acclaim

Updated 06 December 2019

Five Arab films that have won international acclaim

  • Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s 'The Perfect Candidate' is in the shortlist for an Oscar
  • A number of Arab productions are in the race for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar

CAIRO: The Oscars are just around the corner, and in January the shortlist for the coveted Best Foreign Language Film award will be confirmed.

Several titles from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have been submitted for consideration, including Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s “The Perfect Candidate.”

The entry, which tells the story of a Saudi doctor who takes on her country’s patriarchal system by running in municipal elections, is particularly significant as it is the Kingdom’s first Academy Award submission following the ban on theaters being lifted in 2017.

It is also the first to be supported by the Saudi Film Council, an organization launched at Cannes Film Festival in 2018.

Here is a look at other recent Arab titles that have achieved international acclaim, and why they are worth watching.

 

1. WADJDA — Saudi Arabia

“The Perfect Candidate” is not the first of Al-Mansour’s films to be submitted to the Oscars. Her critically acclaimed drama “Wadjda” became the first title to be submitted by the Kingdom in 2013 for the 86th Academy Awards. It marked the debut of a Saudi female filmmaker, with the film shot entirely in the Kingdom.

The story of a 10-year-old Wadjda, and her desire to buy a bicycle to race against a male friend, sheds light on traditions and women’s rights.

In an article for The Guardian newspaper, film critic Henry Barnes described “Wadjda” as a message that Al-Mansour wrapped “inside a love letter to her people.”

 

2. ESHTEBAK — Egypt

The Egyptian film industry has a good track record when it comes to titles receiving global acclaim, one of the most recent being “Eshtebak” (“Clash”), by director Mohamed Diab.

Set in a police van during a period of street protests and unrest in 2013, the film chronicles a time of political and social instability in the country, where a clash of ideologies and personalities unfolds between communities.

 Egyptian director Mohamed Diab's “Eshtebak” (“Clash”). (Supplied)

The resulting tensions and dilemmas are acted out by the people trapped in the van.

“Eshtebak” was selected as the opening film for the Un Certain Regard section at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, and screened internationally across Europe, and in Brazil and China.

The film was publicly endorsed by actor Tom Hanks in a letter to the director: “Your film will go to great lengths to enlighten many. Audiences will see that humanity is a fragile community, but we are all in ‘this’ together.”

 

3. AL-JANNA AL-AAN — Palestine

A Golden Globe winner for Best Foreign Language Film — and nominated in the same category at the 78th Academy Awards — “Paradise Now” was described by its Palestinian director, Hany Abu-Assad, as “an artistic point of view of the political issue.”

The film digs deep into the human aspects of the Palestinian conflict, following the fictional story of two friends recruited by a terrorist group to become suicide bombers in Tel Aviv.

Palestinan director Hany Abu-Assad's “Al-Janna Al-Aan" (Supplied)

Armed with explosives, they attempt to cross into Israel, but are pursued by border guards and separated.

When they are reunited, one character decides against carrying out the bombing, and tries to convince his friend to quit as well.

“Paradise Now” was not Abu-Assad’s only Academy Award nomination. His film “Omar,” which won the Muhr awards for Best Film and Best Director at the 2013 Dubai International Film Festival, was also shortlisted for the same category at the 2014 Oscars.

 

 

4. CAFARNAUM — Lebanon

Directed by celebrated Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki, “Capernaum” depicts the complicated life of undocumented migrants, refugees and workers in Lebanon through the story of 12-year old Zain, who lives in the slums of Beirut.

The film generated $68 million at the box office worldwide, more than 17 times its production budget, becoming the highest-grossing Middle Eastern and Arabic movie of all time.

Lebanese director Nadine Labaki's “Cafarnaum" (Supplied)

“Capernaum” won the Jury Prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival — it received a solid 15-minute standing ovation after its screening there — and was shortlisted for Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards.

Labaki’s other productions include “Caramel” and “Where Do We Go Now?”

 

5. THEEB — Jordan

This drama by Naji Abu Nowar starred non-professional Bedouin actors and focuses on events unfolding in the Wadi Rum desert in southern Jordan during World War I.

Jordanian director Naji Abu Nowar's “Theeb" (Supplied)

In 2016, “Theeb” won internationally recognition by becoming the first Jordanian nomination to make it to the shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.

It was also nominated for Best Film Not in the English Language at the 69th British Academy Film Awards, and won the Best Director award at the 71st Venice International Film Festival.

 

• This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.