UAE’s dance communities taking centre stage

The Mapping of the UAE Dance Scene project aims to raise the profile of dance and movement in the Emirates

The Sima Dance Company is part of the Mapping of the UAE Dance Scene project. Ruel Pableo for The National
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Draped in a loincloth, chest bare, arms and ankles covered, with 32 different ornaments and jewels and an elaborate headdress with a tiara and a two-metre red cloth strip trailing behind, Danuka Ariyawansa leaps and whirls on stage.

His dynamic footwork synced with the raw, pulsating rhythms of a drum. The flight attendant from Sri Lanka has found a way to keep his culture alive in the UAE through the kandyan dance, a classical dance form from the Central Hills region of his country.

“I started training back in 2000 when I was in school because art was a key aspect of the Sri Lankan education system. The basic principles of the dance are from Natya Shastra, the earliest Indian text on the performing arts, and was traditionally performed only by male dancers. Dancers create movement through space and time, and it requires a lot of strength and stamina,” said the dancer, 33, who moved to Dubai eight years ago.

But opportunities to watch Ariyawansa perform in the UAE are still few and far between.

“I feel like there is a lot of potential to grow this art here but very little awareness about the different dance forms that exist in the UAE. The challenge is also finding practice spaces and the lack of a platform or portal that connects performing artists to cultural centres and venues,” said the dancer, who currently rehearses in his gym when it is empty or in parking lots.

Ariyawansa is one of many performing artists and cultural institutions whose insights will be included in the first in-depth study of the diverse and multicultural dance landscape in the UAE commissioned by The Arts Centre at NYU Abu Dhabi. The Mapping of the UAE Dance Scene project is being led by the Hiba Art Project, a non-profit cultural initiative that works to raise the profile of dance and movement in the UAE.

Beata Stankevic, one of the founders of the Hiba Art Project, became curious about the breadth of the dance scene in the UAE in 2016 when she had the opportunity to work with Alserkal Avenue as a curator of their first contemporary dance programme.

“I found that there was no visibility of the field and the different types of dance forms and local talent that exists here,” said the dance programmer and cultural manager of performing arts.

“I also realised that, unlike the visual arts, no one was documenting the history, growth, influences and nuances of the dance scene in the UAE.”

The study, which she expects to complete by the end of the year, will be for public and private cultural institutions, managers and performers invested in developing the field. It will be an all-encompassing documentation with an overview of existing genres and players in the field, and an analysis of the ecosystem and infrastructure available. It is being developed through personal stories, case studies, observations, insights, and qualitative and quantitative interviews with institutions and artists from across the country, becoming a reference of history and a resource to support the growth of the industry.

Stankevic said that one of the goals of the study is to identify the different dance communities and the challenges they face.

“I have been observing the UAE dance scene for many years and can see that they are highly segregated. I’m now trying to draw a picture of what is available here in terms of infrastructure, venues and professionals, such as cultural managers, costume designers, set creators, and what is missing and where support is needed to provide more opportunities to these communities,” she said.

Giving the example of the Bharatnatyam Indian classical dance in the UAE, which she has extensively researched, Stankevic said that such dance forms exist on the fringes, unknown to anyone outside that community.

“There are growing communities of heritage, contemporary and street dance here but there remain obstacles for them to attain mainstream status. However, they do have the potential to become part of the country’s cultural landscape, as they are in other multicultural countries like the US and the UK,” she said.

Through focused interviews, she has already identified some challenges faced by performers and new opportunities that they can take advantage of.

“For whom this is an artistic pursuit, renting a studio can be very expensive and they resort to practising in parking lots and moving from one home to another to rehearse. This often proves difficult because the footwork can disturb the neighbours. Another problem is that not many venues have a ‘dance season’ where a budget is allocated for this art form and performers are invited ahead of time to participate.”

She said, however, that the local scene is maturing with institutions like The Arts Centre at NYU Abu Dhabi and Alserkal Avenue focusing on dance programming, and formal education avenues emerging with dance qualifications offered by the Sharjah Performing Arts Academy and some schools in Dubai.

Bill Bragin, the executive artistic director at The Arts Centre at NYUAD, said that he sees Stankevic's work as a crucial extension of their efforts to unearth UAE talent in the performing arts scene.

“In the last few years, the arts centre has had the privilege of showcasing some diverse regional and international performances, such as Arab contemporary dance by the Dubai-based Sima Dance Company and more recently a show underscoring the underground street dance community in the UAE created by resident filmmaker, artist and dancer Philip Rachid,” Bragin said.

“We know that there is all this cultural activity happening at a grassroots level. This project is a great step to start teasing out how many other companies and performers are working in different dance forms and then making a case for more investment in this field. It’s also about finding ways to support the development of artistic dance, be it through workshops, training, commissioning productions or residencies.”

Another intention of the project, he said, is to highlight the stories of the artists in the UAE and give them a global platform.

“Artists living here have a UAE narrative, and I’m really interested in finding out if there is a UAE dance aesthetic and sound. We also want to find work that can travel internationally and shine a light on the country’s creative economy.”

To find out more about the project, visit Hiba Art Project

Updated: September 10, 2022, 11:43 AM