Emirati culture honoured at IIFA Awards 2023 opening performance in Abu Dhabi

Choreographed show highlighted the deep-rooted relationship between the UAE and India

The Opening Act is a four minute performance that includes choregraphed dances, pupetry and lights. Photo: IIFA
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The International Indian Film Academy Awards has returned to Yas Island, marking the first time the event has revisited a destination since its first awards ceremony in 2000.

Taking place this weekend at the Etihad Arena, IIFA Awards 2023 has created a four-minute performance titled The Opening Act to celebrate Emirati culture.

“When we take IIFA to a country, we are importing India, but we are exporting that country to the world,” Noreen Khan, vice president at IIFA, tells The National.

“We want to open the show by giving a live representation of the local culture. Emirati culture is something very close to Indians and South-east Asians, there's a massive community here and there is culture similarities and friendships that lie between us.”

While IIFA Awards 2023 is a celebration of all things Bollywood, with live performances by stars such as Salman Khan, Varun Dhawan, Kriti Sanon, Jacqueline Fernandes and Nora Fatehi, The Opening Act is a surreal, magical narrative introduction of the UAE to India.

Khan adds that the collaboration and melding of cultures in The Opening Act will “show facets of Emirati culture” not only to the live audience of around 25,000 at the weekend at Etihad Arena but to 97 countries around the world.

The Opening Act unfolds as a cultural display, centred on two characters. A young Emirati man, Abdulla, is travelling with his camel when he meets and welcomes Indian Princess Neisha, who has been magically transported to Abu Dhabi. Together they set off on a journey across Emirati culture and heritage.

“There's a lot of Emirati culture that I think people are not aware of, it's very elegant and beautiful,” Sophie Celikoz, The Opening Act’s choreographer says.

“This performance is a taste of the region, to tell people come and experience it. Having that relationship between Abdulla and Neisha in the story is very key in keeping it all very organic and natural as well.”

Through detailed choreography, puppetry, acrobatics, lighting designs, on-screen imagery, traditional dances and attire, Abdulla guides Neisha through the diverse cultural story of Abu Dhabi.

Abdulla’s camel is a hand-painted, life-size puppet manned by exterior puppeteers, carrying him to Neisha. From there, through augmented projections of Emirati fishermen showcasing net weaving and female artisans weaving baskets, the pair experience the culture of the region through Emirati dance performances, such as the Ayyalah and Na’ashat.

Traditional instruments representing both cultures, the santoor for India and the oud and nai for Abu Dhabi and the UAE, can be heard throughout the performance.

A significant storytelling device in The Opening Act is a giant pearl that is shared by Abdulla and Neisha and acts as symbol of cultural exchange.

“The pearl is a very cultural element for us in the show,” Celikoz says.

“It’s a symbol of heritage, of culture, it's a treasure and we're passing that on and gifting Neisha the pearl and inviting her to have her own journey and exploration of Abu Dhabi.”

Celikoz says The Opening Act is about exploring, showcasing and embracing the history and culture of Abu Dhabi and the UAE, while also inviting the guests into that experience.

“I want people to feel really inspired and potentially moved,” Celikoz adds.

“It's about embracing all the information, receiving that and feeling really excited and inspired to go and explore.”

Updated: May 27, 2023, 4:02 PM