Imagine moving to Switzerland to learn how to make chocolate from a master chocolatier.
Or Japan to become immersed in the world of high-tech electronics. Or Colombia to study the coffee-making process, or the Scottish Highlands to make Whisky, or for that matter, Canada, to play hockey at the highest level.
That’s a taste of how North Vancouver teenager Caitlin Smart feels right now as she embarks on a six-month intensive training program with the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, Russia. The 16-year-old is one of just 10 international students from around the world who was invited to join with 90 Russian dancers for training at the prestigious school beginning this month. Learning ballet in Russia is something she’s dreamed of for a long time, Smart said recently before heading off on her adventure.
“Russia is such a big part of the ballet world,” she said. “It’s one of their national prides as well. They've done a lot to really make ballet an art form and have it more appreciated.”
And the name Bolshoi, in particular, ranks right up there with the Paris Opera House as the epitome of the art form, said Smart.
“It holds a lot of power,” she said of Bolshoi’s standing in the ballet world. “There are those big iconic names out there that, even if you don't know ballet from a personal standpoint, you still know those theaters and dance schools. And I think that's amazing.”
It’s taken a huge amount of work for Smart to get to this point. She started dancing when she was three years old.
“I started out in the rec centres just around North Van, just going to little drop-in classes with my mom,” she said. From there she jumped into North Vancouver’s Vanleena Dance Academy, where she spent the next 13 years developing her skills with instructors Eileen Vanneck and Kehree Lacasse. A pivotal moment came at age 12 when she spent a summer training with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
“That’s when I decided that ballet was something that I wanted to pursue, not just something that I enjoyed,” she said.
From then on she’s been training nearly non-stop, working to earn an opportunity such as the one offered to her by the Bolshoi academy. That invite was hard earned, as she first had to audition over Zoom for a chance to attend an extended six-week audition/training session in New York last summer.
The New York session was challenging not just because she was vying for a coveted spot in the Bolshoi academy against other top dancers from around the world, but also because she was learning a new style of ballet. Smart is trained in the classical English style of ballet, while the Bolshoi audition was all Russian-style ballet. The difference might seem insignificant to the untrained eye, but small adjustments in placement and technique added up to make for a big learning curve.
“It was a change of pace for me, which was very exciting,” said Smart.
Months after the New York audition, Smart got a letter telling her that she’d been accepted to the Bolshoi academy.
“I was very speechless,” she said. “I didn't really know what to do. … I didn't process it straight away. It was just sort of, like, I didn’t understand what it meant to be moving away to a different country and sort of following my whole life dream.”
The adventure is set to begin now. Smart spent the last month doing her best to avoid COVID exposures, and is scheduled to arrive in Russia on Jan. 14.
“It’s very nerve wracking,” she said. “Obviously the language barrier, and a whole new country without anyone that I know there. … I’ve been taking Russian 11 [in high school] this year as a language, so I've been working towards it. Obviously, it's hard to learn when you're not fully surrounded by it. But we're getting there.”
She's also looking for a little help to cover the cost of training and living in Russia, as there are no scholarships offered by the academy. To help with costs, her family has set up a fundraising page.
When she returns from Russia, Smart has her sights set on continuing her career here in Canada.
“I hope to come back to Vancouver at some point and dance here with a company, and I'd love to travel around Europe, dancing and touring with companies,” she said, adding that she’ll always be grateful to the people who helped get her started. “Vanleena Dance Academy where I've trained for almost 13 years now has been such a huge part of getting me to where I am today.”