Hoover resident Katherine Free attended a summer intensive ballet program in New York City and Moscow. She learned from instructors at the famed Bolshoi Ballet Academy.
Unbelievable. A dream come true. The opportunity of a lifetime.
That’s how 16-year-old Hoover resident Katherine Free describes her summer. The blossoming ballerina spent nine weeks — three in New York City, six in Moscow — pursuing the art form she loves under the direction of the world’s most elite instructors.
Free was one of just 15 American ballerinas selected for the Bolshoi Way Program of the Russian American Foundation’s National Security Language Initiative for Youth . She earned an all-inclusive, merit-based scholarship to spend six weeks in training at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy of Russia (BBA).
“I’m just so excited for her. I think it was an amazing experience, one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that changes you and leads your life in new directions and new possibilities,” Katherine’s mother, Cindy Free, said. “It was a really, really fortunate opportunity for her to get to do it.”
Katherine, a Hoover High junior enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program, endured a tedious application process in order to secure a spot in the prestigious program.
After performing a live ballet audition in Atlanta, which granted her acceptance into the BBA New York Summer Intensive, Free had to write three essays, participate in a phone interview, gather teacher recommendations, fill out countless forms and submit her academic transcripts.
“Pretty much our entire life, they knew everything about us,” Katherine said.
As evidenced by her selection, the program coordinators liked what they saw.
Having been around ballet since her infancy –— she made cameo appearances in The Nutcracker as a baby — Free’s dancing talent shows what it means for something “to run in the family.”
Cindy, a former professional ballerina, and her mother, Suanne Ferguson, a former ballet instructor who established the Canton (Ohio) Civic Ballet, co-founded the Birmingham Ballet Academy in 1991, alongside friend Janet Wolnski. Cindy remains the academy’s director and oversees all of the classes and productions, while Ferguson remains actively involved.
“My mom, since she’s the director, I grew up living here and kind of was forced into the environment, but stuck with it,” Katherine said.
A product of her lineage, Katherine began dancing when she was just 3 years old. At 8, she then started her formal training according to the Vaganova method, a technique developed by the iconic Russian ballerina Agrippina Vaganova that combines the most difficult elements from all of ballet’s various disciplines.
Though she owned the resume of an ideal candidate, it wasn’t until April that Katherine discovered she had secured one of the program’s coveted spots. When she did, preparation began immediately.
One of the program’s primary components included learning the Russian language, so Katherine was sent preparatory worksheets to introduce her to the linguistic fundamentals prior to her arrival in New York City. Then, during her three weeks in the Big Apple, she went through more extensive prep, attending language class twice a week in addition to taking six hours’ worth of dance classes each day.
“That was the first time I started, so I had to learn the alphabet, which is phonetic, so it’s not that bad,” Katherine said. “And then once we got in to New York and then started language class there and then in to Moscow, it was full-on language.”
In Moscow, Katherine’s time was divided even more between dance and linguistics. During the mornings, she attended two hour-and-a-half ballet classes at the BBA followed by a lunch break. After lunch, she then devoted the remainder of her afternoon to language, logging four hours of class time each day.
“I actually came out knowing a lot of language,” Katherine said. “I can communicate pretty well now.”
Although she lived in the BBA dorms during the week, Katherine spent her weekends living with a host family in Klin, a suburban town just over 50 miles northwest of Moscow. Every Friday and Sunday evening, her host family would take a two-hour train ride to the city to bring Katherine to and from the academy.
“On the train ride, I would get to talk to them, and we’d be talking about cool stuff, and similarities between what Russians do and what Americans do, and then when I get there, we would adventure around Klin,” Katherine said. “I really loved being with my host family.”
As a result of her immersion in the Russian culture and viewing the country from a native perspective, Katherine recognized the stark contrast between perception and reality.
“With Russia, everybody talks about the politics and how Russians are bad,” she said. “But when you’re in Russia, politics don’t matter to them. It’s like us in our everyday life.”
Additionally, she noted that Russians are personable people who have an enhanced appreciation for the arts.
“Once you get to know them, Russians really want to know you,” Katherine said. “They want to keep up with you.”
Although she won’t be able to re-apply to the same program this summer, Katherine returned from the unforgettable trip with memories that extend beyond her time in ballet shoes.
“Living with a host family showed me a different side of Russia that most people will never see because they don’t live there,” she said. “I think it was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”