Alia Al Neyadi is the UAE’s highest profile ballerina. She explains to Alice Johnson that it has taken gruelling dedication to achieve her goals.
At just three years old, UAE national Alia Al Neyadi started performing ballet moves. She was surrounded by ballet at home, encouraged by her mother Svetlana Al Neyadi - a Ukrainian ballet master. Svetlana became her daughter’s ballet mentor, encouraging her to practice the classical discipline. At age nine, Alia stood on her toes for the first time - called ‘en pointe’ in ballet. Aged 10 Alia joined a girls’ summer dance programme in the USA, and gained a score of 98 per cent in its performing arts assessment.
Three years ago Alia caught the attention of the UAE as the first Emirati to lead a ballet troupe in a concert sponsored by the Ministry of Culture that saw her dance alongside international ballet stars from the Pisarev Ballet School in Ukraine. The concert was organised by Nahtam Social Responsibility based in Abu Dhabi - a non-profit organisation that promotes cultural events. Ballet, however, isn’t Alia’s only specific talent as she’s branched out into performing arts more generally. “I have been in this field for 17 years and not just ballet, but performing arts in general. I believe that once you’re an artist, you’re bound to be one for life,” she said.
Balancing her current study schedule with her passion for dance and the performing arts has proved difficult, as most of her troupe are also studying and some are abroad. Their most recent performance they had together was in January of this year, but she still trains hard, works out and takes Pilates classes weekly. Currently, she’s studying to gain a BA in international relations, specialising in culture and society. “I’ve grown fond of so many things throughout the years and all my life I’ve been doing something extraordinary. I really wanted to be a part of my culture and society in the UAE and the specialisation in culture and society gives us a view of the relationship between cultural production, social institutions and knowledge across time,” she said. “I’m also fascinated by understanding the meaning of life and hopefully will be able to take a minor in philosophy before my Masters,” she added.
Having ballet as a hobby isn’t something widely accepted in Middle Eastern society, she said, but she persevered, “Many people weren’t so sure of my talent and my hobby it was quite ‘strange’… but I still went with it”. Alia has now completed numerous shows for charity, mostly arranged by her mother, to support children in need. “I’m really proud of her,” she said of her mother, “she’s really accomplished a lot and has won so many awards for being an influential woman in the arts.”
Svetlana currently runs the UAE’s first private ballet institution, Fantasia Ballet School. Alia and her mother have even won joint awards together, while Alia was named ‘Woman of the Year’ at the Arab Women’s Awards - something she gives credit to her mother for. “It’s all thanks to my mum’s support and my hard work.” The two are currently planning more exciting projects which will “surprise everyone in the UAE,” Alia said.
Ballet is notoriously laborious, a fitness-intensive discipline that requires a combination of great skill, talent and determination to result in success. Ballet dancers often get severe blisters on their feet and the blocks they stand on can regularly make their toes bleed.
Ballet isn’t just about performing, however, as many take it up for the great fitness results they can achieve. “I see a lot of the younger generation who are very motivated and it makes me proud that I have done something right,” she continued, “Older girls come and join us for training, not for performing. You don’t have to perform, that’s a choice. You can just work out, build your body, stay fit and have fun at the same time.”
Because it’s such a tough discipline, Alia said it might still be a few years before the UAE has its first professional ballerina. “This career is really hard and it’s one of those that either you get into or you don’t,” she said. “You can always be good technically if you work hard, but you can’t improve or fix your soul - it’s either there or it’s not within the dance.” However, it’s a beautiful hobby for young ladies, she continued, and she encourages anyone to follow what they believe they can be good at and do what really makes them tick. “No matter how strange it is for some people, to you it could be the world. Follow your dreams, no-one can take that away from you,” she said.
The arts sector in the UAE is growing steadily, with construction ongoing on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island that will house the Louvre and Guggenheim, as well as other artistic and cultural centres. Alia believes that Emirati artists need to bring themselves into the art world. “People here are so talented, our nationals, and they need a chance to shine and show what they have in everything not just performing arts - in drawing, photography and film making… Art isn’t just dancing, art is everything around us. Art is life,” she said. For the arts sector to work in the UAE, the dancer believes that a mix of outside influences and local talent need to combine, “A beautiful mix of both to show what our people hide from the outside world to show that UAE nationals do have talent and beauty and skills within their culture and society,” she concluded.