When Alia Al Neyadi was just three, there was a moment, still vivid in her mind today, that she remembers falling in love with ballet for the first time. Her mother, Svetlana Al Neyadi, was a successful Ukrainian ballet dancer-turned-teacher, then teaching in New Orleans. “I would tag along with my mum in my stroller to class, even when I was a little baby,” Alia recalls. “And I remember just sitting there and watching her teach all the kids and do rehearsals... And at one point, when I was able to walk, I just got out of the stroller and stood in the front row and started dancing. I knew from then that this was something I had to do and I’ve been doing it ever since, for 20 years.”
That moment, all those years ago, was the start of something incredibly special: a career in ballet that would bring Alia to the UAE and bestow upon her the title of ‘the first Emirati ballerina’. It’s an appellation that she dedicates, in no small part, to her mother.
Following a 20-year career as a ballerina, and having moved from the States to the UAE after she married, Svetlana was invited in 1997 to teach ballet courses to children at the former Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi. Classes of five quickly turned into classes of 25, and soon she’d created the region’s first ballet course at the children’s centre at the Cultural Foundation. It was here, amid frothy tutus and the sound of en pointe shoes clacking across the dance floor, that Alia was given her first real insight into the world of performance art.
“Performing arts is a huge part of my family,” Alia explains. “My grandmother was a journalist, who wrote essays about the performing arts, and she was fascinated with the ballet world. It was her dream to be a ballerina, but it was not to be, so when my mum fulfilled her career, and then I started dancing, she was very happy. I think she kind of lived her dream through us. I’m carrying on that legacy for her by being the first performer in the UAE as a ballerina, and by also trying to make a difference in the Emirati community and society in general, to show them that [ballet] is something really beautiful.”
In 1998, alongside Svetlana’s work with the Cultural Foundation, Alia’s mother set up her own private ballet school, Fantasia Ballet in Abu Dhabi – with Alia, naturally, becoming the first pupil. Now, as a veteran, 20 years later, Alia says, “Our main aim is to encourage all young students to hopefully, in the long-run, perform and become part of our ensemble group. But really, we just want to encourage anyone who wants to learn about ballet to come and try this art and see that it’s something we’re really passionate about.”
Having danced for most of her life, under her mother’s nurturing eye, Alia fully understands the disciplinarian demands of a career in ballet – rigorous training regimens, strict diets, regimented rehearsal schedules, missing out on all the normal childhood experiences of her peers... “From a young age it taught me discipline and I think that is extremely important, because I’ve learned that when the going gets tough, to just keep going,” she explains. “I’ve always been taught to push myself, to do better, because there’s no ‘best’ in ballet, there’s no top and no firsts, it’s just about getting better and better. These are morals that we have in our life and it really gave me strength,” she says. “I soon learned that I wasn’t missing out on much,” she says. “And to be honest, I don’t think I’d be the same person that I am now without ballet. It shapes you, it gives you the value of life.”
Since her career began 20 years ago with Fantasia Ballet, Alia has accomplished many ‘firsts’ to be proud of. “I take huge pride in being [a student of] this first ballet school, because we did things at our age that no one in the UAE had done. We went at the age of 15 to the Ukraine and the States to compete and represented the first Middle East country among 50 others all from around Europe,” she recalls.
“I remember everyone saying ‘Wow, the UAE, where’s that?’ Everyone was always really interested in seeing us perform because I think there was a misconception that perhaps we weren’t going to be very good, that we came from a rich country that was all about oil, but they were shocked. We proved that we have much more to offer, that we’re also rich in culture. I think everyone realised that we have the same passion and this is what unites us.”
Naturally, where there are highs, there are lows and no career is free of challenges. For Alia, most of them derived from misconception and misunderstanding. “Because ballet teaches you discipline, I’ve always been able to appreciate everyone’s opinion and criticisms,” she says. “For me, most of those criticisms came from people who didn’t understand what I did.” And while there is much press about Zahra Lari, the UAE’s first female ice-skater, and Nahla Al Rostamani, the UAE’s first female Formula 1 driver, ballet appears to warrant fewer column inches, perhaps, says Alia, because it’s not yet seen as a profession. “We have a female boxer, ice-skater, F1 race car driver, pianist, opera singer... We have so many female Emirati ladies that are doing things, and we all face our challenges, but everything that we do is beneficial to the UAE. I’m just trying to show everyone that you should do what you want to do because so many UAE ladies are afraid to pursue something they really like because they know it’s not a profession in the UAE. Maybe someone wants to be a painter, for example, but that’s not considered a profession. But it could be, you know. I think it takes a lot of time and patience.”
Patience is also required when fielding questions from those who challenge what she does – or doesn’t – wear on stage. For example, off-stage she chooses to wear an abaya and hijab, on-stage Alia wears a costume that changes dependent on her performance; the latter proving a bone of contention for some, she says. “As an Emirati lady, when you go out, you wear an abaya, the traditional attire, so people ask me how can I then wear something, an outfit, that they deem as ‘revealing’ on stage? My answer is that the Alia persona on stage is completely different to the ‘me’ in real life. On stage, I’m whoever I have to be in that story. I play a character, and to play that with emotion, for me to really feel it, and to have the audience really feel it, I have to embody that character. Yes, there’s a Muslim Australian ballerina [Stephanie Kurlow] who wears the shayla, but I see that as a complete personal preference. I don’t wear it because when I dance I need to feel free. And for me to feel free, it’s about personal choice. I don’t think ballet is political. It’s supposed to be fun and I shouldn’t have to think about religion when I’m doing it, because it’s about freedom and portraying a beautiful art. It takes a lot of time for people to understand that, but I think they’re coming around now.”
Alia’s passion for celebrating the arts and culture of the Emirates is in part thanks to a youth spent surrounded by a world of performing arts in Abu Dhabi and the wider world, but also down to her informed educational choices. Having completed Middle and High School in Abu Dhabi, Alia studied at Zayed University, opting for a new major in Culture & Society. “At that time, [the university] didn’t have anything in the performing arts, so for my major, I had to go a little more broad,” she recalls. “I was still very fascinated by the Emirati culture and its heritage, and I knew I needed to study it further in order to understand it better if I wanted to change the cultural scene in the future.” Having graduated two years ago, and with a one-year ‘sabbatical’ from dance, Alia has just completed her first year working in the Department of Culture & Tourism in Abu Dhabi. Her vision is to study her Masters, either in London or the States, to pursue further knowledge of the performing arts, because “I feel like my mission is basically to guide the UAE when it comes to the cultural scene,” Alia says. “When I was performing at the age of seven, there were absolutely no kids here who did what I was doing. No one did. No one even knew what ballet was. My first performance was at the Cultural Foundation, a landmark created by HH Sheikh Zayed, so I was really at the root of the cultural scene in the UAE – I was there, I was part of it, I saw how it started. So I think that I really have that experience and that kind of knowledge to show and share.”
Far from hanging up her pointe shoes to pursue a different career, this is just Alia’s way of ensuring that the future of ballet – and the wider performing arts – in the UAE becomes a field that is recognised, celebrated and invested in. “I always hear people in the Department of Culture & Tourism talking about how important and rich the UAE culture is and how important it is to have all these different fields...We have the Louvre, and the upcoming Guggenheim and the Zayed National Museum, and soon, the Performing Arts Centre. It’s all very culture-focused and I think that was why I knew [the Department of Culture & Tourism] was the place I had to go after graduating.”
Her words carry weight, which is why she chooses them carefully, especially in her position as mentor and role model to young girls, from the dance studio to social media. “I get asked a lot about how I stay motivated, especially when I have had, at times, people telling me not to do something. I told one girl recently, that as long as it comes from your heart, as long as you have support, you can accomplish anything. Your dreams are big and you’re in this life to fulfil them.”
While she’s a figurehead for young females breaking into ballet, Alia looks to the roster of Emirati women now taking seat in ministerial positions to inspire her own journey. “Noura Al Kaabi [UAE Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development] has done so much for the cultural scene, so I of course look up to her,” she says. “Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi was the head of Zayed University when I studied there, so she has been an extremely important part of my life; Shamma Al Mazrui [UAE Minister of State for Youth Affairs] and Dr Amal Al Qubaisi [president of the Federal National Council, and the region’s first female leader of a national assembly]… All these women are extremely loud and vocal and present and their opinions matter, and I think that makes them very inspirational because they make changes that really count. Having seen what they’ve all achieved, it shows me, as an Emirati, that you can do whatever you want, whatever path you see ahead of you, if you have faith you can achieve anything.”
Her faith, she says, is unwavering, despite it too being called into question. “For many people [in the Emirates], ballet is something new – they have no education about it, so it’s taken many years for people to understand that it’s not interfering with my religious views and it’s not interfering in my life as an Emirati lady. I really believe that what I do doesn’t affect my religious faith. In fact, my faith is strong. From when I was little, I was always told that it’s important to pray, that it’s important to believe in God and to thank God for everything that you have in your life. My grandmother also taught me that even when something is extremely difficult, with God’s support you will get through anything. And I think because of that, my faith has only been made stronger.”
While it is the passion and ambition of Alia’s youth that earned her the title of ‘first Emirati ballerina’ 20 years ago, it will be her faith that will take Alia forward on her quest to open people’s eyes to the beauty of ballet and transform the perception of performing arts here, in our homeland, for generations to come.
From the March 2018 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia