Jillian Smith, a high school student from Los Altos, traveled to Moscow this summer, landing a six-week language and ballet scholarship at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy.
Smith, 16, a Los Altos resident, was awarded one of 15 academic and merit-based scholarships for promising ballet dancers nationwide to attend the summer school program, sponsored by the US State Department and the Russian American Foundation.
The intensive session is designed to foster relations between the two countries.
What Smith learned was invaluable.
“Russian dancers are very dedicated from an early age, and there is such a level of talent at the Bolshoi,” she said.
The historic Bolshoi Theater opened in 1856 during the coronation of Tsar Alexander II and continues to be the premier performance venue for Russian opera and ballet.
Three hours of dance lessons in the morning followed by four hours of Russian lessons gave her food for thought. The teachers conducted the immersion program entirely in Russian.
Smith began taking ballet lessons in elementary school at the San Juan School of Dance in Los Altos and continues to study privately while pursuing independent studies at Los Altos High. She dances 15 to 20 hours a week.
In an interview on his return last week, Smith said: “It’s really grueling to work that many hours, and you’re really sore and tired – you’re reaching a much higher level (also).”
Before leaving for Moscow, Smith attended a three-week ballet workshop in New York. Her father, Ken Smith, director of mobility for the Stanford Center on Longevity, was surprised at how “the Bolshoi Ballet teachers pushed them. … It wasn’t military or dictatorial, but it made the most of it.
Once she started taking classes in Moscow, Smith found her teachers “amazing…and they really cared about me.” During the week Smith stayed in the dormitories of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy.
After class, Smith and the other students hopped on the subway to visit the Pushkin Museum, Gorky Park, and other landmarks she had only heard of.
Over the weekend, Smith stayed with two different host families, which gave him a taste of what it would be like to live in Moscow. She found Russians in general to be quieter than Americans, especially in public.
While her mother, Sonia Enand, worried that Russian culture was very different from the West or Europe, Smith found some of the differences to be good.
On the one hand, people really valued the community.
“There were a lot of invitations and my foster moms were having tea time for the neighbours,” she said.
One thing he will really miss are blinis – Russian pancakes served with homemade jam or honey.
One family’s grandmother lived with them, which led Smith to realize that “a lot of (extended) families live together, but it never seemed strange to me.”
She was also able to practice her Russian skills and found that she had no trouble communicating – although her grammar sometimes missed the mark.
His mother was concerned about the country’s economic crisis, which was reducing creature comforts.
Smith took all the difficulties in stride.
“Sometimes the hot water would cut out,” said the teenager, whose older brother Alex is studying computer science at the University of Utah.
For a California girl used to lots of sunshine, the weather also seemed quite changeable.
“Some days it was raining all the way and then it was balmy,” Smith said. “It wasn’t all sun, all the time.”
Her father said the fraying US-Russian relationship, which has deteriorated in recent years, made him “very tense” just before Jillian left. Problems in Ukraine and Crimea made him wonder if Americans would be unwelcome.
Enand said her husband reached out to Stanford political science professor Michael McFaul to make sure the “political climate was safe enough.” McFaul, former US Ambassador to the Russian Federation (2012-2014), allayed the couple’s fears. Like the organizers of the academy, he noted that Russians place great importance on artists.
“They’re very literary-focused,” Enand said.
“And there’s a lot of emphasis on culture and ballet, theater – anything artistic,” Ken added.
Although she admitted the experience started out as a trial by fire, Smith added, “I had a really authentic experience.”