Alia Al Neyadi arrived in the world in 1993, around the time that celebrated Ukrainian danseuse and prima ballerina of the National Theatre of Opera and Ballet of Ukraine, Olena Filipyeva arrived on the global dance scene winning international ballet competitions and capturing the heart of the legendary soviet-era ballerina Maya Plisetskaya.
It is perhaps more than just coincidence then that 24 years later, Alia is mirroring the career graph of her ballet idol and doing for the UAE what Filipyeva did for Ukraine – putting the country on the international performing arts scene. And she does it with the additional distinction of being the first ever Emirati ballerina.
Today (April 20), Alia will perform the iconic ballet Le Corsaire (based on Lord Byron’s poem) at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi with Ukraine’s renowned Donetsk Opera and Ballet Theatre and ballet superstars Ivan Vasiliev and Maria Vinogradova as part of the Abu Dhabi Classics 2018 season. The cherry on top of such a coveted opportunity? Alia organised the performance – she’s the cultural curator at the Department of Tourism and Culture, Abu Dhabi (DCT).
‘My babushka (Russian, for grandmother) always used to tell me that I have [Olena’s] fiery personality and high technique that appears effortless to viewers and, most importantly, her ability to make a performance emotive and dance from the heart,’ Alia reminisces, when I meet her in her mother’s ballet studio – Fantasia Ballet Academy at Al Reem Island, Abu Dhabi.
Sunlight streams through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows and I hope it warms up the reserved young brunette to my questions. Interviews and media attention aren’t Alia’s forte, her mum, manager and teacher Svetlana had forewarned me.
Dressed in a black tee and jeans, Alia could pass off for a university student, but the poise and finesse with which she crosses her sock-clad leg (everyone has to wear socks to prevent scratches on the studio’s bouncy grey adagio floor) gives away her 20-year dancing career. The swan-like turn of her neck is fluid when she calls over her shoulder for her mother to quiet down. ‘She’s a teacher, so she’s always loud, my mum,’ she jokes.
The sunlight seems to be helping as does talking about her one true-love: ballet. She blossoms while animatedly describing the lyricism of Swan Lake and Odelle’s grand jetes that create an illusion of her flying in her white tutu.
Alia was barely two when she walked to the front of her mum’s class of teenage ballerinas in New Orleans and started posing with them.
Three years later, the family – Svetlana, Alia, her older sister Katherine and their father Abdulla – moved back to the UAE from the United States, and dance accompanied them in the form of Fantasia, the ballet academy that Svetlana set up in Abu Dhabi. ‘At five, I really started practicing and by the time I was seven, I knew this is what I wanted,’ says Alia, who achieved her first en pointe (a complex pose where one stands on toe tips) aged nine.
Svetlana wasn’t surprised; as a baby, her daughter would only nod off to Frederic Chopin’s melodious waltzes and would respond to ‘every genre from country and folk music to classical compositions and hard rock’.
Rhythm comes as naturally as breath to Alia, ballet being clearly in her genes. Her mother is a Donetsk-ballet academy and Moscow college of arts-trained ballerina who performed with Loyola Ballet and New Orleans Ballet Association for years while her maternal journalist grandmother Alla, who couldn’t pursue her passion and ardour for ballet due to circumstances, ensured it was passed on to the following generation by keenly encouraging her daughter and granddaughters. ‘My father also encourages me; he’s more open to ballet than anyone because he met my mum while she was on a tour.’
Her lineage didn’t make training a bed of roses, though. If anything, her mother and ballet master worked her to the bone treating Alia and her sister just like other talented girls giving them a lot of constructive criticism. ‘That’s the backbone of who I’m now. And in ballet, you push someone who has talent.’
And push herself Alia did, missing out on ‘parties, sleepovers, a couple of girls’ nights and cinema outings’, training seven hours on weekends and two hours every day after school. Frequently, the perfectionist pushed herself to tears trying to master a move. There was a phase when chocolate was verboten to 14-year-old Alia for six months so she wouldn’t gain weight before a show. To this day she follows a strict diet and a five-days-a-week exercise regimen. The punishing training leaves her in agony with sore toes that require pedicures thrice a week and sorer muscles that require recovery massages every week.
‘At the end, it was all worth it because it gave me the discipline that I needed; if I’m dedicated to something I will follow through,’ she says. Which is why people were stumped when Alia decided to take a year-long hiatus from ballet after graduating from Zayed University to pursue a job at the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority as a cultural curator. ‘I really needed to take that step back and rediscover myself. When you do something for a really long time, it’s easy to get lost.’
Distance not just made her heart grow fonder for ballet but also stoked her conviction from her time at university – studying culture and society – that promoting the performing arts in the UAE was her calling. ‘I declined an offer from NYU in New York because I wanted to learn what my people are looking for and need [in terms of the arts], which is what I’m doing right now at the DCT.
‘Sometimes, the public doesn’t know they need it and that’s where we [the DCT] come in and help them discover [art] through projects like the Louvre, the Guggenheim and the music and dance shows that are part of Abu Dhabi Classics season.’
Her desire to serve the UAE’S cultural scene and prove that emotion is what lies at the core of all performing arts are reasons Alia will never join an international ballet company although she admires and respects the Bolshoi, Marinsky and American Ballet companies.
When Alia performs a solo from the Danse des Forban section in Le Corsaire today, it will be a special moment where both the ballerina and the organiser’s goals actualise. ‘It’s an honour that DCT trusts me to host their first ballet event. I’m both nervous and excited – it’s a huge responsibility but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
‘Not every girl gets to perform alongside primary soloists from the renowned Bolshoi theatre. I hope to be half the artists they are some day.
‘There are so many different tricks you need to perfect and until this day, I keep practising them. If you even take a break for a month, it’s like you never learnt it,’ she worries, dressed in her ballet attire and standing en pointe effortlessly in arabesque pose for our photographer Aiza Castillo-Domingo.
I have my first glimpse of Alia’s on-stage persona: there’s a fluidity, an airiness of form as she playfully flits across the room in blue and black chiffon and lace outfits that are free of frippery, bending to tie the ribbons of her pointe shoes then pirouetting –‘I’m a turner, it’s my favourite move’ – and sticking landings. The magical afternoon light casts her in a transcendent glow.
‘Alia the performer is way more dramatic than Alia the daughter and sister,’ she laughs, switching between English and Russian in which she seeks her mother’s advice on poses.
Every line, ever arch, every doe-eyed glance exudes grace. It’s a little like watching a porcelain ballerina in a music box except there is nothing fragile about the adventurous woman we’re talking to – she jet skis, rides horses and goes shooting in her free time. ‘Out of the box for a ballerina, eh?,’ she laughs.
Alia is used to people’s pre-conceived notions of her the first Emirati ballerina. At competitions – Alia and her all-female troupe came tenth out of 56 countries at the Festival of Arts in Crimea (2008)– people are shocked to see that a country the same age as their parents is so progressive and we’re good at ballet, she says. ‘Some people say they thought we’d be intimidated by troupes with male partners or that we’d be covered.’
Not just abroad, even at home Alia has raised eyebrows as well as faced criticism for her attire but she’s taken it swimmingly. ‘I respect their opinion – it’s normal human behaviour to judge those you don’t understand, which is why I’ve made it my job to encourage people to come watch ballet shows and see for themselves if there’s something offensive.’
I bring up Stephanie Kurlow, the Australian teenager who’s the first hijabi ballerina to which Alia has a candid response: ‘When I go out, I wear my shaila and abaya. It’s amazing [Stephanie] can do it but I prefer being free and comfortable when performing,’ she explains.
Alia is aware that her family background and support helped her pursue her dreams which is why she wants to help people follow their passions, from little girls who message her on social media to anyone who enjoys the arts. ‘It’s a part of my motto that whatever [art form] you love, you have to pursue it. People might try to dissuade you, which is even more reason to do it.’
For those who are wary of ballet’s highbrow reputation and think it’s hard to understand, Alia has a simple reassurance: ‘You don’t really need to understand the technicality of the moves, whether it’s a plié or a pas de deux. Come to the show dressed nicely, turn off your phones, focus on the story unfolding on stage and let the dancers take you on a fun journey.
‘If you leave the performance feeling I’ve emotionally touched you, I’ve done my job.’
Tickets to Alia’s show at 7pm are available from Dh205 at tickemaster.ae.