Los Altos High School junior Jillian Smith twirled her way to Moscow this summer, landing a six-week language and ballet scholarship at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy.
Smith, 16, a Los Altos resident, scored one of 15 academic and merit-based grants for promising ballet dancers nationwide to attend the summer school program, sponsored by the U.S. 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 a really young age, and there’s such a high level of talent at the Bolshoi,” she said.
The historical Bolshoi Theatre opened in 1856 at the coronation of Czar Alexander II, and continues to be the premier performance venue for Russian opera and ballet.
Three hours of dance class in the morning followed by four hours of Russian-language lessons gave her much to think about. Teachers conducted the immersion program completely in Russian.
Smith began taking ballet lessons in grade school at San Juan School of Dance in Los Altos and continues to study privately while pursuing independent studies at Los Altos High. She dances 15-20 hours per week.
In an interview upon her return last week, Smith said, “it’s really grueling to be working that many hours, and you get really sore and tired – you (also) get to a much higher level.”
Before leaving for Moscow, Smith attended a three-week ballet workshop in New York City. Her father, Ken Smith, director of mobility for the Stanford Center on Longevity, was surprised at how “hard the Bolshoi Ballet teachers drove them. … It wasn’t military or dictatorial, but it drew the most out of them.”
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 Bolshoi Ballet Academy dorms.
After class, Smith and the other students hopped on the Metro to visit the Pushkin Museum, Gorky Park and other landmarks she had only heard about.
On the weekends, Smith stayed with two different host families, who gave her a glimpse 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 the Russian culture would be very different from the West or Europe, Smith found that some differences were good ones.
For one thing, people really valued community.
“There were a lot of invitations, and my host moms would have teatime for the neighbors,” she said.
One thing she’ll really miss is the blinis – Russian crepes 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 felt strange to me.”
She also got to practice her Russian-language skills and discovered that she had no trouble communicating – even if her grammar missed the mark at times.
Her mother was concerned about the country’s economic crisis, which resulted in fewer creature comforts.
Smith took any hardships in stride.
“Sometimes the hot water would shut off,” said the teen, whose older brother Alex studies computer science at the University of Utah.
For a California girl used to lots of sunshine, the weather also seemed very variable.
“Some days it would be completely pouring, and then it would be mild,” Smith said. “It wasn’t all sunshine, all the time.”
Her dad said that fraying U.S.-Russian relations, which have deteriorated the last few years, made him “very tense” just before Jillian left. Problems in Ukraine and Crimea made him wonder whether Americans would be poorly received.
Enand said her husband contacted Michael McFaul, a Stanford political science professor, to make sure that the “political climate was secure enough.” McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation (2012-2014), allayed the couple’s fears. Like the academy organizers, he noted that Russians value artists highly.
“They’re very literature-oriented,” Enand said.
“And there’s a lot of emphasis on culture and ballet, theater – anything artistic,” Ken added.
Although she conceded that the experience started out as a trial by fire, Smith added, “I had a really authentic experience.”