“I didn’t want to be less than perfect”: Interview with Actress and Former Ballet Dancer Sarah Murphy-Dyson

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Originally from Victoria, B.C., Sarah Murphy-Dyson is a Toronto-based actress whose credits include Suits (NBC), Workin’ Moms (CBC), and 12 Monkeys (SyFy). Photo credit: Tara Noelle.

In 2006, Sarah Murphy-Dyson retired from ballet to pursue acting. Four years later, the former First Soloist with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet premiered her one-woman show The Naked Ballerina at the Toronto Fringe Festival. The Naked Ballerina told a story Murphy-Dyson had kept secret for years.

“Ballet was such a perfect metaphor for my life,” Murphy-Dyson said. “Everything is about looking perfect and getting it as close to perfect as you can on stage. And that carried over to my life. I didn’t want to be less than perfect for anybody. I was struggling with stage fright and body issues. For me, they were such big secrets and there was shame around that. I would have rather died than people find out about it.”

In writing The Naked Ballerina, Murphy-Dyson touched on subjects she had “ignored or suppressed.”

“It felt really good to get those out,” she said.

Since the play’s original run, Murphy-Dyson has spoken more openly about her struggles. She says reaching this point took a long time. “And I think that’s why it’s so important.”

“It was kinda layer by layer that I was able to do it,” Murphy-Dyson said. “I did the show, and it was terrifying but very cathartic. When I redid the show a few years later, I did a Q & A ⁠where some young girls told me how much it had helped them.”

Hearing the impact of her story, Murphy-Dyson realized her potential to be a role model. “I realized more and more that everybody is working through their own stuff. The more we hide it from each other, the more we perpetuate the idea that these things are bad or shameful.”

“I realized in hindsight how heavily all that weighed on me,” she said. “I was always so anxious. Always, always, always. I’m not anymore. Every time I think about it or talk about it, it’s such a relief.”

Growing older has also helped Murphy-Dyson in her journey.

“The older I get, the less I care about what other people think,” Murphy-Dyson said. “Which doesn’t sound very nice but we are conditioned In the dance world — maybe more so with women — to make everything okay.  We are told to be nice and quiet, and to make sure people like you.”

“You can take me as I am or not. If you don’t, that’s okay. It may hurt my feelings but I get it. I accept it at least. It’s been very freeing that way.”

Today, the 45-year old actress sees her younger self in a different light.

“It really does feel like that was a past life for me,” Murphy-Dyson said. “It’s interesting because I used to look at it with shame. I didn’t like talking or thinking about it. And now, it’s like I have empathy for my younger self. I can really feel sad for that part of me. For me in that time of my life where I was so lost and didn’t even realize it. Before I would have been upset with myself, but now I can empathize with that person like I would for anyone else. We are our own harshest critics.”

Murphy-Dyson says her departure from ballet came as no surprise for anyone who worked with her. 

“[My coworkers] were definitely supportive,” she said. “I think they got it. I had been going to school while dancing at that point. I had done some independent films. They knew I was getting into the acting. I always loved character roles the best in the dance world.”

Appearing in 2005’s Capote with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman motivated the actress to finally pursue acting full-time.

“What had happened was two of our ballets were made into films,” Murphy-Dyson said. “We got to know the crew really well. We would be laid off — it was contractual — for one to three months a year. Some of us started doing stand-in work and feature background work. It was in doing that, that I ended up doing Capote with Phillip Seymour-Hoffman.”

“I got chosen to do a scene with him. It was literally that moment when I was like, this is what I want to do.”

The next day, Murphy-Dyson told her director it would be her last season with the company.

For the actress, a “huge” part of the transition from ballet to acting was learning to tap into her real self and be honest with not just herself, but other people. Rae Ellen Bodie and David Rotenberg, instructors at Toronto’s Professional Actors Lab, Murphy-Dyson were pivotal to the process.

“When I was dancing and I would get really nervous, especially at first, I wouldn’t tell anyone,” Murphy-Dyson said. “I just thought, it’s my problem. I would push it down and try to ignore it. It would come out sideways at some point. Most people wouldn’t know watching me on stage. Whereas an actor, I can’t. Before, I would deny any negative feelings — nerves, sadness, or anger. [My training] forced me to touch them and acknowledge them. That’s where I have to act from.”

“Sometimes I feel sad that I wasn’t able to get to that place while I was still in the ballet because I think that would have been an amazing place to dance from, the freedom of that.”

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Sarah Murphy-Dyson in End of the Rope, a short film by Sibel Guvenc.

Although she retired from ballet 14 years ago, Murphy-Dyson has not totally stopped dancing, especially not for the camera. The CBC web series Off-Kilter, released last year, saw Murphy-Dyson play the role of Anna, a veteran ballerina nearing the end of her career. The actress recently starred in End of the Rope, a sci-fi short film by Turkish-Canadian director Sibel Guvenc. In it, Murphy-Dyson plays a famous dancer whose career is ended by a car accident.

When she is not busy appearing on stage or in film and television, Murphy-Dyson writes screenplays. The actress says she has many ideas, and plenty of screenplays “sitting idle,” but high on her priority list is an adaptation of The Naked Ballerina.

“I want to direct and produce my own stuff with a core group,” Murphy-Dyson said. “ I have had great feedback on an adaptation of The Naked Ballerina, it’s just a matter of money. It’s definitely high on the list, but I would do something smaller first to help get a directing or producing calling card.”

Murphy-Dyson has a new teacher in her life.

“I have an eight-year old daughter,” she said. “Being honest with yourself and really stepping into who you are and not worrying about what people think. She’s more like my teacher in that. She’s definitely well on her with that.”


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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/