Spotlight: Sarah Curts

Dancer, artist, and model Sarah Curts.

Dancer, artist, and model Sarah Curts.

26-year-old Sarah Curts’ dance career began at the age of four when her mother enrolled her into ballet at a local dance studio. The next year, the young dancer was enrolled into jazz. When asked by her mother which she wanted to do, Curts enthusiastically replied “both of them!”

“So, I did both of them. Every year I kept adding another class and another class,” said Curts.

A quiet child growing up, the Calgary-born dancer, artist, and model says what attracted her to dance was the freedom she found in being allowed to move and express herself without words.

At the age of twelve, Curts chose to pursue ballet professionally.

“That was the age where you had to decide whether or not you were serious about ballet,” Curts explained. “So, I started going to international summer schools – Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Banff Centre, the American Academy of Ballet, and Alberta Ballet…I was always dancing.”

Navigating the ballet world was not easy, however, as expectations were high for students.

“This is what you’re doing and this how you do it, and you have to do it perfectly. That was the ballet world,” Curts said. “You had to be perfect and better that girl, otherwise you’re not going to get the part.”

Eventually, the pressure to succeed overwhelmed Curts as it began to affect other areas of her life.

“When I was twelve and decided I want to do ballet professionally, then it was like a really big push to ‘okay, let’s nail everything. Let’s be perfect. Let’s get higher grades. Let’s get higher legs’,” Curts said. “It became everything.”

“In high school, I was getting straight A’s and I was still like, ‘what more can I do?’ When you’re at that level and you’re doing hundred percent, you shouldn’t have to do more. Sometimes…eighty percent is good enough.”

The classically trained dancer found support in her mother and ballet teacher, who she says was like a second mother to her. Apart from them, however, Curts says it was a struggle she largely took on alone since she did not have many close friends whom she could reach out to for help. With all her attention focused on school and dance, there was not much time to develop close friendships, Curts explained.

After graduating high school, Curts moved to Toronto where she trained in contemporary and modern at The School of Toronto Dance Theatre. Living in Toronto, away from home, proved difficult for the emerging dancer.

“When I moved to Toronto, I was 17,” Curts said. “And that was…I wanted to get away and not like lash out, but [rebel] – get away from my mom and all these people. But then it was really hard because I had no social skills, because I was such a dancer! All I knew was dance. I was dancing with other dancers, but I didn’t know to interact with them, and they were all older than me. So, that was really hard.”

After two years in Toronto, Curts moved back home where she eventually completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Visual Studies, with a minor in Psychology, at the University of Calgary.

“I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do, so I started in Open Studies,” Curts said. “And then, I was like ‘let’s just paint,’ because I was always an artist as well as a dancer.”

The impact of Curts’ struggles can be seen in both her art and choreography, she says.

“All of this stuff has really influenced my visual art,” Curts said. “With my visual art, especially in university, all the works I did were based around depression, eating disorders, and loneliness… that’s what healed me in a way.”

“In terms of dance choreography, my first few works revolved around these topics of self-questioning and self-understanding. The works I’ve done on groups have been more movement-based, like really physical movement. But I guess in a way it all came back to struggling, like everyone’s got some sort of journey or struggle, but you’re all in it together.”

This idea that everyone has their difficulties is what motivates Curts to share herself “fully and authentically” with the world via Instagram. On the popular photo-sharing app, though, most people know Curts as Sarah Bella (Butterfly), a name she adopted four years ago while working as a Go-go dancer.

An intimate performance of self, Curts’ Instagram account features a variety of personal meditations on life which are expressed through both words and movement. The account aims to demonstrate radical self-acceptance, Curts explains.

“The way I view it is that by being myself…I am encouraging others to do that as well,” Curts said. “Because really…you can get help from others, but no one can help you but yourself. I can tell them what worked for me or give them tools, but the only ones who can help them is them.”

People may also recognize Curts from the Arts Commons announcement video which launched last December. (The performing arts centre was formerly known as the EPCOR Centre for the Performing Arts). Taking part in the video, though, raised interesting questions for Curts about Calgary’s dance community.

“I was asked to be part of the Arts Commons rebranding video…so, I was like pretty much the face for the dance community of Calgary,” Curts said. “But what does that mean? How many people actually know me? A lot of them probably do, but I’m not really involved in that much.”

Furthermore, Curts continued, to say that there exists a cohesive dance community in Calgary is problematic considering the sheer number of dance studios in the city. Instead, she says, there exists pockets, pockets like U of C’s dance community, which she has been involved with in the past.

Regardless, though, Curts feels that she does not belong to any one artistic community, as either a visual artist or a dancer. Curts considers herself an outsider, fleeting like a butterfly who is here one moment, then flies away the next.

” I think that may just be who I am,” concluded Curts. “I am okay with being myself, and I’m okay with being different.”


Recent credits: The Horse Dance Project (New Dance Horizons), Brendan Fernandes’ Still Move, and Absence (Fire Exit Theatre/Corps Bara Dance Theatre).

For more information about Sarah Curts, visit her website: http://www.sarahbellabutterfly.com/

To follow Sarah on Instagram: https://instagram.com/sarahbellabutterfly/

A Pioneer in Classical Ballet: JCBS Founder Umran Sumen Shares Her Story

Jeunesse Classique Ballet Society's Founder & Artistic Director Umran Sumen, standing beside a portrait of herself from when she was a leading soloist with The National Ballet Company of Turkey.

Jeunesse Classique Ballet Society’s Founder & Artistic Director Umran Sumen, standing beside a portrait of herself from when she was a leading soloist with The National Ballet Company of Turkey.

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/