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.


Sustainable shoes that empower artisans and students

Updated 14 August 2020

Sustainable shoes that empower artisans and students

  • Ammar Belal’s ONE432 is revitalizing traditional jutti footwear

DUBAI: Equality and symmetry find a firm footing in the design ethos of ONE432, a sustainable shoe brand based in the US, Pakistan and the UAE. The brand sells hand-sewn juttis — a traditional footwear style from Pakistan and India that dates back more than 400 years — and empowers its artisans by giving them a share of profits from each product sold on top of their wages.

Founded by Ammar Belal, a professor at the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York, ONE432 follows an ‘equal share design’ philosophy that makes local craftsmen shareholders in the product’s success. A part of the brand’s earnings also contribute to sponsoring children's education in Pakistan.

Ammar Belal with schoolchildren in Pakistan. (Supplied)

“Most craftspeople in Pakistan have little or no formal education, which is a barrier to their social and financial mobility. They have valuable skills but very little influence in the global fashion industry,” Belal tells Arab News. “This is exactly what we are trying to dismantle by choosing a different business model that ensures that the makers are uplifted in a meaningful way along with the success of the company they work with. We keep only 50 percent of our profit and share the remaining with our artisans and the schools that we support.”

ONE432 was born out of Belal’s graduate thesis collection at Parsons’ MFA Fashion programme. The brand’s debut collection was presented at New York Fashion Week in 2014, after which Belal was immediately recruited to teach at the school. 

The designer spent three years refashioning the jutti — ornate footwear once popular among royals during the Mughal Empire — to give it a contemporary, comfortable and sustainable look. Each pair of shoes is hand-crafted and takes at least eight hours to make. During the COVID-19 pandemic, as shoe sales dipped, the company has diversified and trained its artisans to stitch hoodies and T-shirts.

ONE432 was born out of Belal’s graduate thesis collection at Parsons’ MFA Fashion programme. (Supplied)

Besides its online store, the brand has a presence in several US retail outlets, and Belal says he is in discussions with a number of other American stores and “a few” in Dubai.

The brand is currently supporting three schools in rural areas in Pakistan, enrolling underprivileged children. “Each product is linked to a specific education-related goal, from sponsoring tuition fees to building new classrooms. We try to meet the most pressing needs of the school,” says Belal. “To date we have shared over $16,000 from our profits with our schools and artisans.”

Belal hopes ONE432 might prove a blueprint for more equality and sustainability in the fashion industry. “The brand was born from a place of empathy,” he says. “My graduate programme gave me an opportunity to pause and reflect on what it meant for me to be an artist and what my contribution would be. I did not want to make another set of really pretty clothes just for the sake of it. I wanted to explore and confront this behemoth of a machine that is the fashion industry and how it incorporates or disenfranchises different stakeholders based on who they are.”

Ammar Belal with artisan Arshad. (Supplied)

In keeping with the brand’s goals, it sources its material responsibly. “Our denim is upcycled from panels that are thrown away after the colour testing process from factories. The cotton is recycled and woven on a handloom, then coloured with vegetable dyes. The embroidery is all done by hand,” says Belal.

The juttis are crafted by a team of seven artisans based in Pakistan. The fourth-generation master craftsmen also mentor young apprentices, including women, to keep the traditional shoemaking method alive.

“Traditionally, women were excluded from cobbling, but we are changing that paradigm by employing women in managerial positions who help create a working environment in which other women also feel comfortable and safe,” says Belal.