When Umran Sumen arrived in Calgary 33 years ago, the former leading soloist with The National Ballet Company of Turkey thought her days of dancing were over.
“When I came here, I was thinking that I am not going to dance. I danced 16 years [with the NBCT]…I have a family, so now I am going to be a mother and wife to my husband…But then, the three boys in my life, my husband and two [sons], saw that I cannot. I am bitten by that virus for arts.”
At the time, however, ballet in Calgary did not have quite the same presence as it does today. Alberta Ballet, Canada’s second largest ballet company, was still in Edmonton and would be until 1990 when it merged with the Calgary City Ballet. (Sumen was appointed Artistic Director of the CCB in 1986). There was yet to be a place that offered young dancers intensive training in classical ballet. For Sumen, there needed to be not just a school, but also a company where dancers could apply what they learned to the stage, enhancing their dance education through live performance.
In 1988, Sumen founded the International School of Ballet and Jeunesse Classique Ballet Society. Sumen’s mission: “to put Calgary on the international dance map.”
Today, JCBS is one of the only pre-professional youth ballet companies in western Canada that does full-length productions of classical ballets. In addition to supplementing ballet dancers’ education, the company also aims to preserve and promote the cultural aesthetic of classical ballet in southern Alberta.
“In that time, it was a dream, but I believed so much that if you are not dreaming then you cannot achieve. You have to dream. [And now] we are celebrating 28 years.”
And in those 28 years, JCBS has produced numerous professional dancers who are not only prominent here in Canada, but internationally as well. JCBS & IBS alumnus Alexandra MacDonald is a second soloist with the National Ballet of Canada. Heather Myers has danced with the Boston Ballet (as a soloist) and Nederlands Dans Theatre where her choreography has also been produced. Other notable alumni: Michael Binzer (Royal Winnipeg Ballet), Gillian Abbot (Cirque de Soleil, Juilliard N.Y), Natalie Chui (Alberta Ballet).
For those who have continued on professionally in other fields, Sumen says she is just as proud of them as she is of those who have continued with ballet.
“If they want to do other professions, then they will still…make me proud. They carry that love of discipline, teamwork and [I know] they will shine in their own profession.
“Do you know how much classical ballet and that kind of high intensive training helps [students] develop as humans? That strength, that involvement in teamwork…makes me so happy when I see that. Do not give up. Raise the bar, always.”
Taylor Yanke, 12, and Montana Chong, 16, are two long-time JCBS members who are driven to succeed, and who will be performing in the company’s upcoming production of Coppelia.
Coppelia is a comic ballet about a life-like mechanical doll invented by Dr. Coppelius and the trouble it causes between Franz and Swanhilde, an engaged couple. From below her balcony, Franz admires and falls in love with the doll, Coppelia, who he believes to be real. Jealous, Swanhilde decides to dress as the doll in order to win back Franz.
“You can tell the instructors have a big background in ballet,” said Yanke who has been with the company since the age of three. “You want to work hard. Everyone is nice to each other and help the younger ones out. The older ones are very supportive of everyone.”
And with Coppelia, as with other classic ballets in JCBS’ repertoire, Yanke is excited to perform roles that have been played by distinguished dancers.
“I love JCBS, it’s really a great place to dance at. You get multiple opportunities to do all of these different roles you see principal dancers in Russia, in France do. When you have the opportunity to do those same variations, it’s really exciting.”
Having just finished her Advanced 2 last year and now progressing to her Solo Seal (the Royal Academy of Dance’s highest level), Chong says the support from her peers is also important to her and her success as a dancer.
“Overall, it’s a really great community here. I feel like I can always come here and be supported both onstage and off,” said Chong who will be playing Swanhilde.
“Their age is so young but what they are producing is amazing,” said Sumen about the 40 dancers involved in Coppelia. “Whoever we are inviting [as] guest dancers, they [are] surprised of the quality of the dancers.”
This year, JCBS is joined by Cuban dancer Elier Bourzac. Bourzac trained at the National Ballet School in Havana for eight years and graduated with honours in 2003. In 2007, he became a principal dancer with the Ballet National Cuba.
Yanke is thrilled to be “dancing among such a high dancer.”
“Just to see how [Bourzac] dances and what he does. He helps us out, too. He gives us corrections after we dance. It’s really great to have him here,” said Yanke.
Sumen is excited to stage Coppelia as she believes there is something for everyone to enjoy in this fun, lighthearted ballet. But she reminds us that such a production would not be possible without the generous help from her volunteers.
“I owe everything to the volunteers. Everyone is so dedicated, supportive. I cannot find anywhere else that has what we have in Calgary. If they will understand that you love what you are doing, you have a respect for what you are doing, you have a strong education in what you are doing, they are behind you. That is why I owe a lot to volunteers in Calgary.”
A pioneer in classical ballet, Sumen looks back on her successes with great joy. She tells her story and speaks about her students with immense pride. And Sumen looks forward to many years to come, because this is not her job, she says, this is her life.
“The arts feed your soul and bring you different perspectives to look at life…to see what is the purpose of who you are and what you are going to bring after you leave this life. If you are going to bring one drop of change in people’s life, then you are successful.”
Jeunesse Classique Ballet Society’s production of Coppelia runs May 29-30 at University Theatre.
For tickets and more information about the company, visit: http://jcbs.ca/
International School of Ballet: http://www.iballet.com/