In a dazzling display of music, light and dance, Expo 2020 Dubai’s three-act opening ceremony on Thursday night told the story of a nation’s voyage of hope, invention and collaboration, taking viewers to a journey from the depths of the oceans to the skies above. Local and international celebrities headlined the event, while the show also had its share of new discoveries from among the 910 cast members from 64 nations.
Who was your favourite performer at Al Wasl Plaza’s centre stage that night? Let’s get to know them and what their performances signified.
Ayyala dancers and the cabin crew
In traditional UAE fashion, the proceedings duly started with Emirati Ayyala dancers ushering guests into Al Wasl Plaza, their voices and the guiding beat of the drums setting the tone for a night full of energy and optimism. And as guests were comfortably seated inside the domed venue, Emirates cabin crew welcomed them in seven different languages, marking the start of the one-and-a-half-hour spectacle.
Rashed Al Nuaimi
Following the introduction of the dignitaries, led by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice-President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, and His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, who was affectionately captured on live camera sneaking a phone from his pocket and taking snapshots of the gorgeous dome, Emirati singer, songwriter and actor Rashed Al Nuaimi walked on stage to deliver a moving rendition of the UAE national anthem as Dubai Police personnel raised the UAE flag.
Al Nuaimi, who only this year completed a masters of fine arts in Musical Theatre from the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, starred in the animated musical film Castaway set for release in 2022. He has been active in the US performing theatre circuit, where he was nominated for an Elliot Norton Award for best actor in a musical category.
Hussain Al Jassmi
In a tribute to the UAE’s founding father, record-breaking Emirati music artist Hussain Al Jassmi strolled into Al Wasl Plaza’s garden fronting the Royal Box to sing Hay Bil Shahama, a song originally written as a poem by the late former UAE president and founding father Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. The poem is a tribute to those who have committed their life to the service and betterment of the nation.
Al Jassmi, who hails from the city of Khorfakkan, has broken records in concert attendance and album sales and is one of the widely followed Arab artists on social media, having more than 1.7 billion views on his YouTube channel. He has performed all over the world and has recorded hits in the UAE and other countries.
Saruq Al Hadid
If there is a starting point to this journey the UAE is embarking on, it has to be on this archaeological site at Saruq Al Hadid, where an ancient golden ring was discovered by Sheikh Mohammed after curiously inspecting a strange pattern in the desert dunes. The ring was dated to be 3,000 years old and would eventually serve as a symbol of the nation’s long and rich history, and a future built on unity, connection and strength. It also became the inspiration for the Dubai Expo logo.
Fittingly, it is the starting point of the show’s epic story that night, with the production team recreating the historical sand dunes of Saruq Al Hadid – itself one of the important characters of the opening night performance – using 84 metres of undulating fabrics.
Habib Ghuloom Al Attar
This is the part where the story really begins, as a wise Emirati elder, garbed in traditional Arabic Bedouin attire and carrying a traditional Emirati Ayyala stick, meanders near the dunes. Played by Habib Ghuloom Al Attar, a leading stage and screen actor and Director of Culture and Community Activities at the Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development, the elder represents the past, the history of the land who has waited for ages for this moment.
"If you look to the dunes, they will tell you the secrets of the Earth. It is in the rumbling of the ground, the whispers of the wind and the waves of the sea," the elder speaks poetically, alluding to a young Emirati girl who represents our hope for the future and the spirit of Al Wasl.
Al Attar, who holds a Phd in Theatrical Literature from Manchester, UK, is a key player in the development of performing arts education in the UAE and author of many books, including fiction and studies on Arabic theatre. He is also known for his appearances in films such as City of Life (2009), Thowb Al-Shams (2010) and The Worthy (2016).
It was at this point when the world had its first glance at the young talent who stole the hearts of the audiences that night. Mira Singh, a relatively unknown pre-teen artist, enters the scene as a young Emirati girl presented with an ancient golden ring by a wise elder.
The story of the UAE’s journey through its past, present and future is told through the eyes of the Emirati girl, who represents hope for all people. "Is it the way of the past that guides me? Or do we walk a new way towards destiny? Perhaps it is where the two paths weave Where we must journey as one in harmony," she muses as she holds the ancient golden ring, with the Al Wasl dome bursting into a colourful array of lights, representing humanity and a blending of the world’s cultures.
Born in Dubai, Singh, who has a Belarusian mother and an Indian father, says meeting celebrities such as Andra Day, Lang Lang and Andrea Bocelli were among her most memorable experiences working on the show.
"I’ve not only met lots of famous people, but have also been lucky enough to work with them, which has been so exciting," says Singh, who wore a hand-crafted traditional Mayaza'a thoub inspired by patterns and visuals of Expo 2020 Dubai during her performance. Organisers said it took around 260 hours of delicate needlework to create the dress, which features carefully selected beads and crystals.
Singh bested hundreds of other children to bag the coveted role, and like any other girl her age, the grade seven student of JSS International School says balancing school and rehearsals was one of her main challenges.
"It is sometimes tricky fitting it all in around my schooling, but my principal is very understanding," says Singh, who has also been shortlisted to perform during the UAE’s Jubilee Year celebration later this year.
Renowned Saudi singer Mohamed Abdo’s rendition of John Legend’s If You’re Out There, singing the first verse in Arabic, headlined Act II of the opening ceremony, where flags of the UAE, BIE, Expo 2020 Dubai and the more than 200 participants are marched into the Plaza, resembling a flower blooming in the desert.
"If you're out there, sing along with me. If you're out there. I'm dying to believe that you're out there. Stand up and say it loud. If you're out there. Tomorrow's starting now, now, now," Abdo belts out, delivering a message that underlines the theme of Act II: connecting minds.
Abdo is well-known across the Arab World as a musical treasure, being credited with preserving Middle Eastern musical heritage.
As the flags continued to pour into the venue, four-time Grammy Award winner Angeìlique Kidjo joins Abdo in a duet, singing in French and English.
The singer-songwriter and actress from Benin in West Africa and Abdo are joined by a chorus of virtual voices from around the world for the final verses of the song.
Hailed by Time Magazine as "Africa's premier diva", Kidjo is regarded as one of the greatest artists in international music with 14 albums to her name. She was also a performer during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games opening ceremony in July.
Mayssa Karaa and Almas
Performing the official song of Expo 2020 Dubai, This Is Our Time, the triumvirate of Grammy-nominated Lebanese-American singer Mayssa Karaa, rising Emirati singer-songwriter and performer Almas and Al Jassmi shared the stage to lead a celebration of the beauty of the human spirit.
"This is our time," the three voices sang the heart of the song in unison, as they are joined by a chorus of children, signifying the importance of the future.
Karaa is renowned for her multi-octave voice and captivating cross-cultural message. The artistic director of Berklee Abu Dhabi, Karaa performed the Arabic version of White Rabbit on the American Hustle soundtrack, while she has also collaborated with Oscar-winner AR Rahman for the song Hayati. She is also artistic director of Expo’s all-female Firdaus Orchestra.
Almas, one of the top rising female artists in the region, covers a variety of genres, from traditional Khaleej to pop, hip-hop and rap. The 21-year-old performing artist has been named in Spotify’s Best Female Talent in the Middle East.
Expo 2020 Dubai’s Commissioner General Sheikh Nahayan Mubarak Al Nahyan took to the podium to tell the story behind the story of the nation’s historic hosting of the Expo, taking viewers back to Expo 1970 Osaka, the UAE’s first presence at a World Expo. Dimitri Kerkentzes, secretary general of the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), the governing body of World Expos, also took the stage to share how the UAE was ultimately selected to be the host of Expo 2020.
The speeches were followed by the raising of the BIE flag on the centre flagpole, with the UAE flag and Expo 2020 flag alongside. The Firdaus Orchestra played the BIE’s anthem as the flags were raised.
A groundbreaking women ensemble, the Firdaus Orchestra is a collaboration between Expo 2020 and legendary composer A.R. Rahman with Mayssa Karaa as artistic director.
The moment has come to officially open the Dubai Expo, with His Highness Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of The Executive Council of Dubai, doing the honours as the Expo 2020 logo appears in the dome's trellis with dazzling effects.
The spotlight then shines on Ahlam Alshamsi, the Emirati music industry veteran who has come to be known as ‘Fananat Al Arab’ (The artist of the Arab world). Alshamsi sang In Dubai in three languages, accompanied by the Firdaus Orchestra, with performers representing the light of equality celebrated in the UAE.
"You’re the place that keeps hearts beating," Alshamsi sang as beautiful lights and shadow effects cast UAE-inspired patterns and motifs across the stage and trellis.
"…In this land of hope, my Dubai."
Alshamsi has been a force for more than 25 years in the music industry, captivating fans with her pure, euphonic voice.
Act III: Creating the future
In a segment called "We follow the same star", 115 performers carried crystalline starry globes, representing light and knowledge, as they swirl and dance. The light and intricate colours they create symbolise the opening minds to new ideas, and the show took viewers to a journey into the subthemes of Sustainability, Mobility, and Opportunity.
The performance also featured 15 professional skaters and showcased a central planet that is more than 11 metres in diameter and weighing 4.8 tonnes.
The young hero re-enters the stage and muses: "Our world is in search of a delicate balance..." Her thoughts reflect an effort to understand the world and find harmony. As she speaks, delicate tones of new hope emerge as a shaft of light shines on a pianist and his piano: Lang Lang captivates the audience with a masterful performance that captures the "harmony between the planet’s needs and what we aspire".
One of the world’s most influential figures in classical music today, Lang is a Chinese concert pianist who has performed with the world’s leading orchestras to critical acclaim. Renowned as a master of communicating through music, Lang is comfortable playing for billions of viewers, as he did at the 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremony in Beijing, or a few hundred school children.
In a performance capturing the movement of knowledge, platinum-selling British singer-songwriter Ellie Goulding performs on the centre stage about dreams and inspiring each other. Singing her critically acclaimed 2012 hit Anything Could Happen, Goulding described performing amid a tapestry of colours at Al Wasl Plaza as an overwhelming and surreal experience.
"Obviously, this is what I love doing. I love performing. And if it can be in a setting as magnificent as this, then great. It was a really an amazing moment," says Goulding, who has sold more than 18 million albums, 140 million singles, and over 23 billion streams worldwide.
"I haven't been able to perform like this for a long, long time," she adds. "…So it's great to come and sing a song that really is close to my heart and one of my favorite songs I've written, actually."
As she performed, cast members moved around a pool of light represented by a 16-metre circular silk fabric to create a balloon effect, while 50 performers handle giant ‘cloud’ props, which are LED-enabled inflatables that flash and pulse with colour and intensity to represent the exchange of knowledge.
From one international celebrity to another, Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter Andra Day delivered a message of endless possibilities and a new tomorrow with her hit song Rise Up, an inspiring number about the struggle – and triumph – of the human spirit.
As she sang from the stands, five groups formed human towers on the stage floor, representing our need to work together to build a better future.
"People [are] going through a lot of things right now and I think resilience is huge," says Day. "To not give up, to not quit, because the mountain can seem so big you can’t see the horizon on the other side. I think that for this summit, and for the performance I would just like reliance and hope to be the theme."
A first-time visitor to Dubai, Day says she’s loving her experience in the emirate. "I’ve always wanted to visit. I hear a lot about it. This is my first time and I’ve really loved it. I just love the people, I love the culture, I love the convergence of all these different peoples and cultures here and then the rich Arabic culture, it’s beautiful."
The Emirati girl’s journey takes a contemplative, prayerful turn as Andrea Bocelli, icon of the great Italian vocal tradition, emerges to perform in front of a fantastical ghaf tree, the symbol of the UAE that shines a light over the blooming garden. Bocelli’s The Prayer reflects on the connection between us all, linking to Expo 2020 Dubai’s theme of ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’.
"For me, it is a big honour and pleasure to be here," says Bocelli, who has sold more than 90 million records to date and also performed in the opening of Expo 2015 Milan.
"It is one of the most important global events – especially after a year as difficult as the one we have gone through. Therefore, it is a way for me to share with everyone great optimism, to look to the future with confidence."