What tempted the UAE’s ‘first’ ballet star Alia Al Neyadi back to the stage

“I really was retiring – I was about to put my shoes down and say, ‘it’s time for me’,” remembers the 24-year-old. “But, I just missed dancing.”

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After her last high-profile, hometown performance, Alia Al Neyadi hung up her ballet slippers for what she pledged would be the final time.

At the age of 22, the “first” Emirati ballet star was contemplating a career change, and had decided to sacrifice her first love for an office job. Ballet had, at that point, been a part of her life every day for the past 18 years.

Fast forward almost two years to the day, and now Al Neyadi is preparing for her biggest dancing challenge yet – performing alongside the historic Donetsk Opera and Ballet Theatre at Emirates Palace, on Friday, April 20, in the Abu Dhabi Classics’ season closing concert.

If anything was going to tempt Al Neyadi back to the stage, it was likely to be the chance to dance alongside celebrity soloists Ivan Vasiliev and Maria Vinogradova in the classic ballet Le Corsaire. Quite a comeback.

A life after ballet

In truth, Al Neyadi's "retirement" – which was announced to The National in April 2016 before a gala performance with the UAE's Fantasia Ballet at Abu Dhabi National Theatre – did not last long. After eight months off the stage, she was dancing again.

“I really was retiring – I was about to put my shoes down and say, ‘it’s time for me’,” remembers the 24-year-old. “But, I just missed dancing.”

“I knew that I had to come back, and I had to do something completely different – and this is the plan that came out of it: Why don’t I be a part of a very well-known ballet, with very well-known dancers? I was like, ‘OK, let me do that’.”

The career that Al Neyadi chose as her professional priority was as a performing arts programmer with TCA Abu Dhabi – the government tourism and culture team behind Abu Dhabi Classics – and her first big coup was booking the Donetsk Opera and Ballet Theatre, a historic Ukrainian troupe directed by the internationally acclaimed dancer Vadim Pisarev.

Based on the version renowned Russian choreographer Yury Grigorovich first staged at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre in 1994, Le Corsaire will mark the first time ballet has been presented as part of the series, which typically focuses on classical music.

The compromise Al Neyadi tried to forge when retiring was sacrificing ballet performance for ballet promotion; in reality, each role enforced and enabled the other. "When I graduated in 2016, I said I would give 100 per cent of my time to helping promote the ballet," Al Neyadi says. "I got into the government to help bring performers and to do educational exchanges with academies from all over the world – to bring ballet to the UAE. I wanted to do something to really help the development of the performing arts.

“But when I really started culturally engaging with so many people, I had new inspirations – I think when you do something for a very long time, you always need to step back, refocus, regroup, and deeply think about why you really love what you do – and being around so many artistic people, the vision that TCA gives of how important culture is, I just knew that I had to come back to it.”

Training for her return

The powers that be could not have found a more fitting ambassador for the art of ballet, or the arts in general. Onstage since the age of eight, Al Neyadi was billed as the “first Emirati ballerina” while still a teenager.

With more than 70 performances to date, it's a label that no longer fazes her. "I didn't realise this title really existed until a few years ago when I was sent to Ukraine for a competition, and the list said: 'Alia is the first ballet dancer to represent the UAE'," she says. 

"My personality helps me with that. In general, I'm very confident in what I do, I'm always up for challenges and trying things people aren't used to. If something's difficult, I'm even more intrigued to do it. I think that helps carry this kind of thing."

And there is a lot of heavy lifting involved. Al Neyadi has been in training for Le Corsaire for seven months, rehearsing more than 20 hours a week. Based on Lord Byron's poem of the same name, the story follows pirate chief Conrad and the young Greek woman he loves, Medora. Al Neyadi plays one of Medora's encouraging friends, alongside the female lead taken by Vinogradova, a leading soloist with the world-renowned Bolshoi Ballet – who is married to the male lead Vasiliev, a multi-award-winning heart-throb nicknamed "Rocket Man" by the adoring critics. Not that such prestigious company makes Al Neyadi shy.

"After so many years, I just want to make sure people like my performance, but I'm not really scared of the stage," she says. "I'm past that part where I get freaked out – when I hear the song, the melody, I get really into the character and the story, and I just go out and dance."

Finding acceptance

After all, Al Neyadi has been dancing for as long as she can remember. Her mother Svetlana, originally from Ukraine, founded the UAE’s first ballet school, Abu Dhabi’s Fantasia Ballet Centre, in 1997.

Sitting in the corner while her mother gave classes, the toddler Al Neyadi would wobble to the front of the room and join in. But as she grew older, pressure mounted from some who took issue with the unfamiliar ballet traditions and attire.

"It took me a very long time [to be accepted]," she said. "In the beginning when I came out as a ballerina, I was only eight years old, so it was all small tutus and everybody thought it was very cute. The challenging part was when I got a bit older at 14, 15, I went in some competitions and people started to ask questions – they asked me 'are you really a Muslim, or not?'

"In ballet, and art in general, we don't mix it with religion – that's number one in my rules. This is something completely different. My persona on stage is nothing to do with who I am [offstage]. When I go out, I wear what the culture is used to – I wear the abaya, I wear the shayla, I don't cover my face but I cover my hair – and that's my preference. Ballet is just something else I'm interested in, and because it is so new and people are not used to it, they tend to ask questions."

It may be encountering these queries at such a formative age that inspired Al Neyadi's tireless urge to promote the arts in the UAE. While bringing a world-renowned ballet troupe to Abu Dhabi is progress – and performing alongside them a still greater achievement – Al Neyadi believes creative cultural traditions will be truly forged with continued nurturing of homegrown artists in the UAE, and a big part of this is providing the infrastructure to support them.

Promoting arts and culture in the UAE

First on her wish list is the realisation of the planned Performing Arts Centre set for Saadiyat Island, a stunning futuristic complex designed by the late "starchitect", Zaha Hadid.

“It’s very new for the Emirati culture to go to a museum and stay there for hours looking at paintings, people don’t understand,” she says.

"I feel like the arts culture is a very different language, but somebody has to start – we have the Louvre [Abu Dhabi] now, we will have the Guggenheim [Abu Dhabi], we will also have our own Zayed National Museum – and hopefully the Performing Arts Centre, which is extremely needed in the UAE.

"Dubai of course has this beautiful opera house, but we don't often have our own artists in it – we don't have the national orchestra of Dubai, or the national ballet of the UAE. A venue is always nice, but my goal is to have an actual home – not just for the ballet, but for all the arts, and have the actual public performing in the company – that's the next step we have to take.

"I know now after so many years that ballet is way more accepted than it was before, but people still wonder 'is this serious, is this supposed to be a job?' But how can you make this a job in the UAE? We don't really hire anyone like that – unlike countries in Europe, or the USA.

"I try to make people understand that I'm not selling a fairy tale – this is also something very difficult. I'm not doing ballet as a full-time job. I mean, it is a full-time job but I still have another job – and until we get to have ballet as a job, there's a long way to go."

Al Neyadi performs with the Donetsk Opera and Ballet Theatre in Le Corsaire at Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi, on Friday, April 20, 8pm. Tickets from Dh205, see abudhabimusic.ae