Making A Grand Entrance – Hadara Magazine

In a short time, the Sharjah Performing Arts Academy has grabbed the spotlight for its high-quality degree programme. 

By Ashleigh Stewart

Alone on a vast floodlit stage, Rashid Conteh stands motionless as the music builds around him. His right leg stomps forward with purpose. Then his left. His shoulders pulse in time with a heartbeat that breaks the sound. Suddenly his body becomes fully alive, his limbs jerking from side to side, hitting a powerful beat with robotic precision. The audience whistles and cheers as his fast feet leap and spin across the stage.

The theatre at the Sharjah Performing Arts Academy couldn’t be farther from Conteh’s previous life. The 22- year-old is in his first year of a dance diploma at the academy, having been recruited off the streets of Freetown, Sierra Leone.

He was dancing on the red tiled terrace of a shed in a Freetown boatyard when SPAA’s former communications director, Brooke Harding, happened by. Mesmerised, she filmed as he performed moves he had taught himself, made famous by Michael Jackson and Nigerian Afrobeat duo P-Square. She encouraged him to apply to the academy, and her video helped land him one of its 100 annual scholarships.

The hardest time, he says, “was back at home where there’s no one to support my family, no one to give me courage as a dancer, no dance schools and no opportunities. My family was so happy when they heard the news, because there was no hope for them. At the same time my mum was crying because she didn’t know how to raise that kind of money, she was so pleased and grateful when I received my scholarship.”

For Conteh, moving to the UAE was the “greatest opportunity I ever had.” Walking into the academy, he says, was like “finding myself in a place in heaven where all my dreams will come true.”

The SPAA is a United Nations of talent, with its 107 students coming from 21 countries. It’s growing quickly, having opened in 2019 with just eight students chosen from 100 applicants. It will eventually accommodate up to 300 students, taking some 70 new students each year. Born from the vision of His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohamed Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, the academy is the first of its kind in the Middle East. It aims to produce actors, singers, dancers, and stage managers who can compete on the global stage. It also hopes to establish an events industry in the UAE that no longer has to import talent.

“We have a single focus, which is to ensure that our graduates go out ready to work in the professional world of performing, whether that be in film and television, or live performance or events, or event management, or TV production, or event production,” says SPAA executive director Peter Barlow.

The academy offers four-year bachelor’s degrees in acting, production arts, and musical theatre, as well as a three-year dance diploma.

As a hijabi woman in the arts, Nadiah Tejani knows she may encounter those who hold negative stereotypes. Ahmed Almazem, a second-year acting student, received an independent film award for his directorial debut. 

Barlow, previously director of the prestigious Guildford School of Acting in the UK, came to Sharjah after a decade doing freelance work. When discussions began about setting up the academy, including advice from Guildford, Barlow’s name came up.   

“His Highness was very interested in making sure that what he established in this country was not just another university department, it was a standalone conservatoire,” with the principal function to train professionals, Barlow recalls.

Jacqui George, a veteran in British stage and production management, heads the production arts courses. Alex Jessop, a former West End performer and choreography teacher at the prestigious Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, is the programme leader for dance and musical theatre.

“Sustaining or making a living from being a professional performer is extremely difficult. So the parents are right to prefer their kids to be lawyers, doctors and engineers,” Barlow says. “It’s not even just the Middle East, it’s everywhere. It doesn’t matter where you go, parents will say ‘get a proper job’.”

However, his students are already “in huge demand” for commercials, films and other gigs. Some are already experiencing success on the world stage.

Ahmed Almazem, a second-year acting student, recently won in the Best Comedy / Dramedy (Short Film) category at the London Independent Film Awards for Baba Jafar, a touching story he wrote and directed about a teen who forms a friendship with an elderly man suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

The 20-year-old’s father is a performer himself—Emirati singer Mohammed Almazem, who instilled a love for the arts in Ahmed. He grew up obsessed with musical theatre. His father warned him how difficult it is to succeed in the industry, and Ahmed chose to pursue engineering instead. That lasted only two years before he realised his heart wasn’t in it and he returned to his old passion with his parents’ blessing. He searched abroad for a university where he could major in film studies and minor in theatre. In the end, it was his parents who told him about the performing arts academy opening in Sharjah.

“They only had one concern: how would I elevate out of this industry? Because the industry here is not very strong,” he says. “But if we don’t throw ourselves into the ocean, we will never learn how to swim.”

Initially Almazem pursued his love of musical theatre and moved into acting due to the small number of students. But now he intends to focus on directing.

“Each and every day I wake up with the same feeling, this is something that I want to do for a living, this is something that I’m passionate about,” he says. “And every day I wake up with the same intention: I promise myself that I’ll give my best.”

When the pandemic hit just months into the academy’s existence, classes moved online. But the UAE’s Ministry of Education allowed SPAA to reopen four months later, figuring that eight students could safely social distance on a site meant for 350.

This is SPAA’s first year offering the Trinity Level 6 Diploma in professional dance—a tie-up with Trinity College London. The three-year programme is considered the gold standard in the global dance industry. It’s the first time Trinity is offering it elsewhere.

The academy, which reopened to live performances at the end of 2021, is now gearing up to perform Nimroda play written by His Highness, in an English-Arabic ensemble production. Preparations to add postgraduate programmes will give SPAA the full gamut of arts education. The academy already offers a BTEC qualification for those aged 14 to 16, and fun, non-technical classes for aspiring performers aged four to 18.

Not all SPAA students seek the spotlight. Some plan to shine from backstage. Nadiah Tejani, a second-year production arts student, “fell in love” with stage management when she was assigned to manage her high school’s annual production.

“I really want to help people, and stage management is a way that I can do that,” she says. “I love the organisation and the connection I can build with people.”

Tejani, who is from Nairobi, Kenya, grew up in the UAE. She originally wanted to study English, and her family were supportive when she changed focus to stage production. But she knows that as a hijabi woman in the arts she will face others who may hold negative stereotypes of women from the region and pigeonhole her, especially overseas, where she intends to head after graduation. The academy is helping her to feel empowered, she says, and she hopes she can help change how hijabi women are viewed internationally.

“Men are the benchmark for everything and then women are compared to that. But not here,” she says. “It’s so powerful that we’re able to do it in such a country and in such a special society.”

Conteh also has high goals. He wants to become a professional choreographer and to open his own dance school, so he can support his family in Sierra Leone.

“I feel that dancing brings people together and it’s a form of expression that makes people escape daily worries,” he says. “I want to use this opportunity to become the best dancer I can be, so when I go out there I’m going to show the world what I’m capable of.”

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