Original article by Somya Mehta at Khaleej Times can be found here
Dubai – Grammy-nominated composer and painter Ella Spira MBE on bringing a multisensory theatrical experience to Dubai Opera commemorating the UAE’s Golden Jubilee
As the UAE commemorated its Golden Jubilee in full-swing, the National Day celebrations are far from over. The country continues to be painted in red, green, white and black hues amid the backdrop of reflecting on the past 50 years while peeking into its forward-looking plans for the centennial. Although there’s been a lot to celebrate in every nook and corner of the city, in the middle of these ceremonies is also a multisensory theatrical experience that has come to the city’s modern art hub — Dubai Opera.
The city’s prime performing arts centre is hosting a unique art series, 50 for 50, which features 50 landscape paintings of the UAE composed by Grammy-nominated composer and painter Ella Spira, who spends her time between Dubai and London. The unique multimedia exhibition captures the sound of the UAE, bringing together a unique blend of paintings and music inspired by the natural landscapes of the region, in honour of the Year of the 50th. Embracing the country’s natural heritage and celebrating it through a distinct gaze — one that infuses an outsider’s perspective with lived in experiences — the artwork is a culmination of Ella’s UAE travels.
Ella, who’s the eldest amongst six siblings, grew up in a household surrounded by the arts. With both her parents being artists, the discipline towards the arts was an early inclination for the artist. “I started playing the piano when I was six. Ever since, I’ve been very committed to music. My grandma cites that when I was about three, I used to dance and sing Sleeping Beauty. I loved Tchaikovsky,” said Ella, adding that her grandfather, who was a Jew from Poland, was also a composer and conductor. So was music nature or nurture? “I think it’s probably both. I’m careful how I speak about this but I do think that being a third generation Holocaust survivor has driven my need to give a voice to cultures that I think currently don’t have as much of a voice on the international live entertainment stage. I do believe that the arts hold the greatest power for positive change,” added the UK-based composer.
The 50 For 50 series at Dubai Opera concludes with the world premiere of Daughters of the Wind Overture, a Sisters Grimm film, which is a theatrical production company co-founded by the composer and former Royal Ballet ballerina Pietra De Mello-Pittman. “Pietra and I co-founded Sisters Grimm in 2009, with the vision of breaking all the rules when it comes to theatre-making. Together we produce these large-scale theatrical works that give a voice to different cultures. We’ve been in the region developing the Arab World Show for two years now,” said the multi-award-winning composer, who was recently awarded an MBE (the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for her contributions to International Trade and the Creative Industry as co-founder of Sisters Grimm.
While developing the Arab World Show, she had been exploring the country and going to different parts of the land “that, to us, were definitely not well-known,” said Ella. That’s how the concept of 50 for 50 came about. The whole experience is visually and audibly immersive because each musical score has been specifically adapted and created for each painting. The film, directed by Jhenyfy Muller, is based on a story by Stephen Powell, featuring co-founder Pietra performing Ballet on musical compositions that also feature singers DB Gad (co-composer) and Madyan Hamza, singing in English and Arabic.
Having worked across the globe over decades, creating art and music, Ella found several similarities tying different cultures in close bonds rather than being a discourse for division. “We’ve worked on every continent, except Antarctica,” she laughs. “And you don’t even have to speak the same language to understand parts of different cultures that may be so similar to yours. Music has offered me a gateway into understanding different cultures. I don’t have to be able to verbally communicate with people. I communicate through music,” said the composer, adding: “I’m British, I’m white and I’m Jewish and my collaborator here is Egyptian and we supersede cultural boundaries when it comes to creating art.”
The composer further added, “I’m not blind to the fact that being British and white doesn’t automatically mean that I’m coming from a place of privilege. There should also be some responsibility to use that privilege with awareness and for the right reasons.”
At a time when cultural wars entrench the landscape of art, should artists pay more heed to combat the risks of cultural appropriation? When asked if she makes conscious efforts to not tread on those boundaries, she responded: “Particularly right now, this is a very important question. It’s become quite a trend to do cultural collaborations. But Pietra and I have been doing this since 2009. And even before that, I was working with African artists and Arab artists.” Ella added that growing up in a diverse community in Gloucester, these collaborations have been organic from an early age.
But what is crucial to the composer, when it comes to cultural collaborations is to always approach them from a place of committing a substantial amount of time to being in the place, surrounded by the people of the region. “What’s also important is that we’re not trying to take an existing folktale and simply doing the job of telling it. I think that would be cultural appropriation and possibly stealing the story. I don’t think that’s right. We’ve come up with our own narrative which is inspired by the people that we’ve met here. It’s been developed through collaboration with people that we’ve met through our travels and experiences in the country,” Ella added.
The film screening that concludes the art series, is part of Act II of the wider Arab World Show that Sisters Grimm has been developing for over four years, to create a full-fledged theatrical production that tells the story of the Emirates on an international platform. “There’s huge potential here for artists to come from the UAE, and showcase their talent on the international stage. We’re putting together a large-scale team, to work with the talent here to go into our usual format of doing musicals and live shows, everywhere across West End to China,” mentioned the composer.
When asked whether long-form art and entertainment coincide with the changing audience palates comprising shorter attention spans, accustomed to binge watching 30-second reels, the composer expressed her concerns towards a social media trends-driven art economy. “I think that it’s quite dangerous because being able to create something that looks great in 30 seconds, or a minute or even two minutes, which is “long” for social media standards and translates as an interesting piece of digital content, does not mean that it actually represents an art form that is going to have legacy.”
“What we don’t realise is that this is all very transient. In 10 years’ time, it would have all changed again. So, instead of focusing on things that actually stand the test of time and have a legacy that will matter, all the focus is going here,” added Ella.
“Even in 100 years’ time, the aim should be to leave something behind that people can look back at and not only recognise the people, but also learn something about their culture, and about where we are in this moment in time. That is something that can’t be possible with short-form social media content,” said Ella.
According to the figures provided by the Broadway League in Forbes, the industry reported its best-attended year in Broadway history in 2019, with 90.51 per cent of its seats filled, grossing a total of $1.757 billion. “Whilst on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis, people’s attention spans have become shorter, they still turn up to go and watch Bond films, like a massive celebration. Shakespeare is still performed and celebrated. Right before the pandemic hit, broadway was at its peak. So, I don’t believe that, at any point, long-form entertainment will become redundant,” the UK artist signed off.
The free-to-attend multisensory theatrical experience celebrating the UAE’s 50th anniversary is running from November 29 to December 14, at Dubai Opera.