SPACE a labor of love for Naperville couple

  • Southport Performing Arts Conservatory's co-founders and artistic directors Altin Naska and Fusun Alpakin Naska with daughter Dilara at SPACE's recent benefit and auction. The small arts conservatory is widely considered one of the best in the Chicago area.

    Southport Performing Arts Conservatory's co-founders and artistic directors Altin Naska and Fusun Alpakin Naska with daughter Dilara at SPACE's recent benefit and auction. The small arts conservatory is widely considered one of the best in the Chicago area.

 
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Altin and Fusun Alpakin-Naska never dreamed they would share responsibility for more than 200 children.

Yet, with the continued success and growth of Chicago's Southport Performing Arts Conservatory, affectionately known as SPACE, the couple are delighted that their life-long drive, dedication and philosophy toward the performing arts are inspiring budding artists of all ages to embrace a passion for music and dance.

The couple, both highly regarded professional artists in Europe, were somewhat dismayed when they first settled in Chicago in 1999 when Turkish violinist Fusun came to the city to obtain her master of music degree in violin performance at Roosevelt University.

"Both Fusun and I came from a very structured and professional arts background," said Altin Naska, a dancer and choreographer originally from Albania. He recounts being handpicked by a government appointed "talent scout" at age 10 and invited to live away from his parents while partaking in a serious study of the art of dance along with his regular studies.

This type of intensive study that often leads talented children to grow up away from their parents is a common occurrence in many European nations and is intended to provide the best possible instruction to develop, encourage and inspire young and talented artists.

"Even today, there isn't a performing arts school in the United States that requires that kind of commitment from parents and students starting at that early of an age," said Altin.

"Both Altin and I have been in love with the performing arts since we were children," said Fusun Alpakin-Naska. The auburn-haired violinist and devoted mother of two children began studying music at the age of 7 and soon began performing with orchestras and classical ensembles throughout Europe. "Music and dance are extremely important to us. Without our love of the arts, we never would have met and married."

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The couple met in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1993, where Altin was choreographing and performing in the musical "Evita" at the Istanbul City Theater prior to working with the Istanbul State Opera and Ballet Orchestra where Fusun served as assistant concertmaster.

"She was so beautiful, and I knew at first glance that she was my true love," Altin exclaims. A devoted friendship developed into a courtship with the two marrying in 1998. The next year the couple moved to the United States, settling in Chicago.

"I've always had a dream of creating a European-style conservatory that focused on music and dance," said Fusun who has performed with Chicago's Civic Orchestra under the direction of Daniel Barenboim, Classical Symphony Orchestra, Northwest Indiana Symphony and New Philharmonic Orchestra as well as teaching in DePaul University's Community Music Division and People's Music School.

The couple quickly recognized the lack of money and time devoted to the most basic of arts education programs in the American school system and realized that a serious educational program for interested musicians and dancers would be extremely beneficial in their adopted home.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We really wanted to inspire a passion for music and dance in both students and their families," said Fusun, "and we realized that this passion and education would help develop self-discipline, contribute to academic success and also aid in developing a child's self-confidence."

Like all great ideas, SPACE started small. In 2005 the Naska's dream became a reality with the opening of the first SPACE location at the St. Alphonsus Academy and Center for the Arts in Chicago's Lincoln Park.

The central location and arts-friendly attitude drew four music students and two dance students that first session. The Naska's forged ahead, welcoming the challenge of creating a name for themselves and their organization in the culture friendly environs of Chicago. Those original students thrived and excelled with the individualized attention. And, through word of mouth and grassroots marketing efforts, more students and their ultra-supportive parents began to seek out the small arts conservatory.

Since its inception, the Southport Performing Arts Conservatory has grown by leaps and bounds (or in ballet parlance jeté and tour jetés). The couple soon added extra music and dance classes, sought out talented professional instructors that also worked professionally in the Chicago arts scene to cope with the steady influx of students, and opened a second studio space on Peterson Avenue in Chicago.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Now, six years after opening its door, SPACE provides instruction for more than 200 people, offers a wide variety of music and dance classes both in individual and group sessions, has year round educational programs including the popular Summer Arts Camp and special Dance Intensives and workshops for more advanced performers. Additionally SPACE presents free workshops for their students that are headed by internationally known luminaries in the music and dance disciplines.

Modeled after the traditional European-style arts conservatory, SPACE has created core arts curricula for music and dance. Classes for the conservatory curriculum include (for serious music students) lessons in music theory, solfege (the system of syllables traditionally used to help students learn the notes of the major and minor scales), and quarterly music juries to assess progress combined with an intensive learning system.

In dance, the curriculum includes a ballet training program, juries every six months to assess development and multiple performance opportunities. Several students participate in SPACE's advanced program which, when completed, provides eight years of intensive, high quality instruction from ages 9 to 18. Students completing this rigorous program are awarded a diploma.

"One of our core strengths is that our programs are small and student centered," said the couple. "Our students benefit from a fully multidisciplinary culture where practical training is at the core of each and every class and every production. As such, our graduates are not only recognized for the talent and creativity, but also for their discipline and professional readiness."

In keeping with its increase in students, SPACE's Peterson Avenue location underwent a dramatic renovation last summer. With the aid of devoted parents who donated their time, labor and even materials, SPACE doubled in size. The result is a light and airy waiting area that is comfortable for families, a changing area, dedicated office space, music rooms and a large dance space that incorporates high-end professional grade materials.

The Naska's realize the importance of relationships and community. As such, the couple began a monthly Sunday Salon Series in 2010 at SPACE's Peterson Avenue location. The Salon Series has featured a variety of affordable entertainment ranging from Korean tenor Kyung Yong Lee and the Chicago Reed Ensemble to a high energy, in-your-face hip hop performance by Chicago's Hypnotik lead by dancer and SPACE faculty member AJ Tran.

"The Salon Series is extremely important to us as it lets us connect with the community while providing them with low-cost quality entertainment," remarked Altin. All of SPACE's Salon performances are family friendly and are set in an informal environment. "We want people to come in and enjoy a performance and perhaps upon leaving a young person will hum a tune or do a few impromptu dance steps and feel the magic of the performing arts," he continued.

Creating performance opportunities for their students and performing within the community is important to the SPACE founders. Each summer, SPACE's music and dance students can be found performing their well honed skills at neighborhood festivals throughout the Chicago area, at various public libraries and at the Daley Center's popular and highly attended "Under the Picasso" series.

These appearances let the students become accustomed to live performances, audiences and how to act if something goes awry. Altin recalls a technical snafu when his student dancers were performing a mini-"Nutcracker" at a Chicago public school in a performance in front of their peers. "The music CD began skipping in the middle of the dance and we had to re-cue the music. Those dancers didn't move a muscle. They stayed poised and ready and showed the utmost professionalism," he proudly recalled.

The pinnacle of each performing season for the young SPACE dancers is in November. For the past four years, the conservatory's top ballet students have had the opportunity to perform with the esteemed Moscow Ballet in performances of "The Russian Nutcracker" at the Rosemont Theatre. Forty young dancers from SPACE were selected to appear onstage in last year's presentation of the classic holiday ballet.

The economic downturn has been hard on everyone the last few years and arts organizations are no exception. The Naskas are quick to recognize the unflagging devotion of the families of their young students and the strong bonds that have been formed.

"We have tried to make our students feel like SPACE is their second home and a safe haven where they can explore both their artistic and human potential," said Fusun, "SPACE parents recognize the benefits of our program and have always been there to help us by donating their time when we renovated the Peterson Ave. studio or by actively participating in fundraising activities such as our Anniversary Gala which raised money for scholarships or our Perform-a-Thon."

Between the two SPACE founders, more than 800 miles a week are racked up in their daily commute from suburban Naperville. The drive time gives the couple a rare reprieve from the daily duties of running a successful and growing business and the responsibility of being parents of 9-year-old Dilara, a talented dancer and vocalist, and 1-year-old Ozan who is already showing signs of loving music and dance.

"He can't help himself. He actively listens to music," said Altin, "and when he hears fast melodies he shows his interest by wiggling his bottom."