Emirati ballerina Alia Al Neyadi has big plans for the UAE’s cultural scene

The first Emirati to lead her ballet troupe continues to inspire others to follow in her footsteps. We catch up with the trailblazer ahead of her Abu Dhabi concert, Symphony of Life.

It’s a dream many little girls have at one time or another, as they pull on a tutu – to become a ballerina. Alia Al Neyadi is one of the first Emiratis for whom that childhood dream came true.

She will be the special guest performer at Symphony Of Life, a gala performance by the UAE's first youth ballet, Fantasia Ballet, tomorrow. Thirty-five aspiring young dancers will perform alongside two guest stars from the world-famous Pisarev Ballet in Ukraine.

The production was created and directed by Alia and her mother, Fantasia Ballet master Svetlana Al Neyadi, under the patronage of the UAE’s Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development.

The final bow

The event might be the last chance to catch 22-year-old Alia on stage – she says that after this show, she plans to hang up her ballet slippers for good.

With marriage and a master’s degree in performing arts at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts looming, she has decided it is time for her to pass on the mantle to the next generation.

“Ballet has been a part of my daily life for 18 years, but now I’m at university, I don’t get to do as many classes,” she says.

“My goal is to work in the Ministry of Culture promoting ballet and other art forms that are not yet common in the UAE. I have many plans in store for the UAE’s culture, so stay tuned.”

Innate talent

Svetlana, a Ukranian professional ballerina-turned-ballet teacher, says she always knew her daughter was a gifted dancer.

“Ballet music was the only noise she could sleep to when she was a little baby,” she says. “My job – not as a mum, but as a teacher – was to bring this big talent out, as I do for all my students.”

Alia lights up a stage with her presence, but is happy to stay out of the spotlight when she can.

“Alia doesn’t like attention, which makes me happy, as a mum,” says Svetlana. “She just likes to make people happy through her work.”

World-class act

Alia and four others from the UAE’s first generation of ballerinas have already proved themselves to be world-class dancers. In 2008, they were invited to the International Festival of Arts in Crimea to present “Emirates Ballet”.

“Of course they were the best in the UAE – but I wanted to put them into challenging competitions to see how good they really were,” says Svetlana.

Of the 56 countries that took part, Emirates Ballet finished in the top 10.

“That was my secret, when Alia was young – but now she is a lady, I can share it with you,” says ­Svetlana.

The controversy

Alia, who normally wears an abaya in public, has faced a backlash on social media from some who accuse her of dressing inappropriately on stage.

“I’m on stage, not in a mall, and that is very different,” says Alia. “Some people don’t understand performing arts in general, so when they see me in a tutu with my arms open, they don’t get that that’s just part of a stage persona.”

The fans

However, the appreciation has always outweighed the criticism. Svetlana says Alia receives increasing numbers of emails from young Emirati girls.

“They are very sweet letters expressing gratitude and saying, ‘I wish I could be like you’. Some say, ‘My family is not ready yet, but I wish.’”

Fantasia Ballet has a couple of young Emirati members who are showing early signs of promise.

“Some have pictures of Alia in their bedroom,” says Svetlana. “She gives power to them to think, ‘Yes, I can do it, too.’”

A tribute to mums

Svetlana and Alia have dedicated their two-hour production to mothers everywhere, in honour of Alia’s Ukrainian grand­mother Alla who recently died at the age of 78. She was Svetlana’s backstage assistant and never missed one of Fantasia’s shows in 18 years.

Alia says it was her grandmother’s dream to be a ballerina, and although that dream was never realised, she is fondly remembered as “the spirit of the ­backstage”.

“She was the grandmother of all Fantasia ballet, and was totally dedicated to the children,” says Alia. “Ever since I was very small, she’d be backstage telling the girls, ‘You’re up next.’ If you ever saw a child breaking out into a big smile, it was because she was giving them a sign from the back.”

The performance

Alia says she dances because she wants to say something through her movements.

“Every point, every finger tells a story. I am portraying emotions through my moves,” she says.

During the show, Alia will perform a 10-minute mini-ballet with two other Fantasia ­ballerinas.

“Abu Dhabi has never seen a piece like this, its totally modern with lots of free movements,” says Svetlana.

The second piece, which Alia will perform solo, is to a European song which Svetlana has choreographed specifically for Alia.

“It’s the final ‘boom’ moment of the ballet,” says Alia.

Symphony of Life is free to attend; show begins at 7pm on Wednesday, April 27 at Abu Dhabi National Theatre

artslife@thenational.ae