The Story of Performance Art
An architectural masterpiece, the 2,000-seat venue cost $330 million to complete and brought cutting edge technology to the country’s cultural stage.
Visually stunning, with a dhow-shaped design rooted in Emirati heritage, the building’s capabilities were unprecedented. Here was a venue that had the capacity to put on any show the world could throw at it. A single light could provide 1.2 million shades of colour, the theatrical rigging system had 18 kilometres of wire rope, and the building’s ceiling had a lifting capacity of 191,350kg. There were also 97 speakers in the auditorium and a line-up of world-class productions. It was a game changer. Not only for international performers, but more importantly, for local artists too.
“Performing at Dubai Opera was a very special moment for us,” remembers the musician and producer Adriano Konialidis, who took to the venue’s stage with Abri & the Dreamfleet in 2018. “Playing in such an amazing location to a near packed auditorium was magical. The acoustics were wonderful, the vibe was beautiful, and we really felt the appreciation and warmth of the audience.
“Performing to an audience has always been something very unique,” adds Konialidis. “Although it can sometimes be challenging, it helps in breaking the fear barrier when facing the public. At other times it allows us to connect with an entire audience just through the sound of a few notes. It is magical. Music has allowed me to experience wonderful moments in life that nothing else could.”
It is this connection to an audience and the moments that it can produce that drives so many of those involved in the country’s performing arts. From dancers and comedians to actors and musicians, performance is often an extension of their own characters and a vehicle for both individual and collective expression.
“Performance has shaped the person that I am,” admits Asad Raza Khan, a Dubai-based actor, director and producer. “It has given me confidence, depth, empathy, discipline and a lot of friends and family. Not only were these skills important for me to excel in the field of performing arts, but they have also helped me excel in the professional side of my life, where I now lead a global brand. Performances shape you so you can excel in all aspects of life.”
Although still in the early stages of blossoming, the UAE’s performing arts scene has come a long way in the past few years. Boosted by venues such as Dubai Opera and Abu Dhabi’s du Arena, and driven by the dedication of performers from a dizzying array of backgrounds, an undeniable sense of possibility has arisen. Theatrical productions have become more ambitious, comedians have attracted bigger and bigger laughs, and contemporary dance troupes have pushed the boundaries of what constitutes human movement. In doing so, they have helped to shape the cultural landscape of the UAE.
“We have so many nationalities in the group,” says Lana Fahmi, lead artist at the Sima Dance Company. “I don’t think this would be possible anywhere other than the Emirates. Each dancer in the group comes from a different country, from a different culture, so everyone brings their character to the group.”
In many ways the Sima Dance Company epitomises the cosmopolitan nature of the performing arts scene, but also its possibilities too. Its founder, Alaa Krimed, originally formed the company in Syria back in 2003, but moved to Beirut in 2012 to escape the civil war. He relocated to Dubai in 2015, where he suddenly found himself among other performers from around the world.
“In the early days, I was told it’s impossible to start something here,” says Krimed. “Because Dubai is a big city and competition is strong. I feel very safe here. I’ve never experienced that before and I’m no longer scared. So, I decided to fight. And I had to start from scratch for the third time. I am so proud of what I’ve achieved. That I made it this far and sustained this project for 15 years.”
It is passion and belief that make such things possible. Without it, performing arts venues such as The Junction and The Jam Jar in Alserkal Avenue, the Courtyard Playhouse in Al Quoz, Masrah Al Qasba in Sharjah, or the House of Arts in Al Ain would arguably not be with us. Neither would the Sharjah Institute of Theatrical Arts or the Sharjah Performing Arts Academy. All require a certain kind of dedication. A certain kind of devotion.
As with other forms of artistic expression, however, the UAE has consistently invested in the performing arts. The Abu Dhabi National Theatre has provided an integrated complex for staging of plays and performances since 1981, while the Fujairah International Arts festival has been celebrating theatre, music and dance since it launched in 2016. The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi, located on Saadiyat Island, has also created a ‘vibrant laboratory for performance’ by fostering a ‘dynamic relationship between the arts, scholarship and the community’.
“Over the last few years we have seen wonderful initiatives from the UAE to support the local performing arts ecosystem,” says Konialidis. “I have been lucky to witness a very positive and organic evolution from when I first moved here 12 years ago. It is encouraging to see more and more musicians and performers come to the UAE, not only for work, but to explore a new environment and get inspired. Young kids aspire to successful local acts and it is important to continue supporting the arts to ensure the youth can successfully look up and embrace them throughout their childhood in a natural way.”
Momentum must not be lost. Further support from institutions, audiences, the media and individuals is required if the UAE is to continue to inspire people from around the world with its stories, productions, talent and capabilities.
“I see a place where our musicians attract global talent for collaboration, movies and web series are consistently shot in Dubai, comedians and poets choose the UAE for inspiration, and our theatrical scene is on par with Broadway and the West End,” says Khan, who began acting at the age of seven in a school production of Aladdin. “How cool would it be to have an original Dubai play online à la Hamilton, or showcased on Broadway and the West End? It is up to the people of the UAE to support local [initiatives and talent] and give them the encouragement they need to drive forward.”