Alabama H.S. Junior Spends Summer in Russia To Prepare For ‘Nutcracker’ Role

Posted: November 11, 2014 in Society and Culture


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Summer in Russia Prepares Teen for ‘Nutcracker’ Role

A high school junior said she plans to tackle one of the most challenging roles in classical ballet using what she learned while training in Russia over the summer.

Elizabeth Lindsey, 16, a homeschooled student who lives in Mountain Brook, will perform as the Sugar Plum Fairy in next month’s production of “The Nutcracker” by the Birmingham Ballet.

And the teen ballerina said it will take all of the lessons she learned at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow to perfect the technically and physically demanding role.

“It’s a really big role, and it demands a certain level of maturity,” Lindsey said. “It’s not just about having excellent technique, it’s also about conveying the artistry of the character.”

Lindsey said she got plenty of practice on both technique and artistry during the six weeks she spent at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy intensive during the summer.

During the program funded by the U.S. State Department, Lindsey spent at least eight hours every day studying ballet and learning about the Russian culture and language.

“The program was intense–in every sense of that word,” she said. “You never stop learning, from the time you get up until the time you go to bed. It was exhausting on a physical and psychological level.”

Having completed a shorter summer program at the 235-year-old academy two years ago, Lindsey said she knew what she was in for when she was accepted to the six-week intensive.

The official school of the Bolshoi Ballet has a reputation as one of the most prestigious–and demanding–classical ballet schools in the world.

“When I was 14, my ballet teacher, Cindy Free, took me and her daughter to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy,” Lindsey said. “I fell in love with the style of teaching there and vowed to come back as soon as I could.”

And while tales of strict Russian teachers abound in the ballet world, Lindsey said her experience taught that perception doesn’t automatically equal reality.

“I think the Russian ballet teachers–and Russians in general–get a reputation for being harsh or overly strict, but the reality is that the people I met at the academy were just very, very passionate about what they do,” she said. “I think to American ears, the Russian language itself can sound a little harsh.”

For her second trip to Russia, Lindsey tried to learn as much of the language as possible. She also spent three weeks at the Russian American Federation’s Bolshoi Ballet Academy Summer Intensive in New York City before heading to Moscow.

“I spent those three weeks taking Russian language classes and prep classes on the culture,” Lindsey said. “And of course, I danced and danced. I wanted to be fully prepared for the next six weeks.”

During the summer intensive in New York City, Lindsey met a young dancer from Russia who has become her best friend, she said.

“We still stay in touch, and it’s really neat to have that ongoing connection to Russia,” Lindsey said.

During her time in Moscow over the summer, Lindsey attended classes all day at the academy and slept in the dorms there throughout the week. On weekends, she and the other foreign students stayed with host families near the academy.

While it was tough being away from her family–parents Frances and Cooper and siblings Sarah Grace and Cooper Jr.–Lindsey said she enjoyed getting to know her Russian host family.

“They were the sweetest people,” she said. “It was a family with a 13-year-old son and that’s the same age as my brother, so I thought it was kind of neat that no matter where they are, 13-year-old boys are kind of the same and love to play the same Xbox games.”

Lindsey said that teenage girls, too, have a lot in common, no matter if they buy their iPhones in Mountain Brook or Moscow.

“We all dressed the same and listened to the same music and were into the same things,” she said. “I think the Internet and social media have kind of erased any gap between teenagers across the world.”

Lindsey said she felt an instant connection with the other dancers at the academy.

“It was so cool to be around people who are just as passionate about dance as I am,” she said. “When I first started dancing seriously, it was hard to find a group of kids my age that were really, really into it, so finding that peer group in Russia was a really good feeling.”

Lindsey’s trip to Moscow came just a few months after an international crisis erupted between Russia and Ukraine over control of the Crimean Peninsula.

“My parents at first thought it might be too dangerous for me to go over there this summer,” Lindsey said. “But as we got more info and thought about the fact that the program is funded by the State Department, we all felt better about it.”

Lindsey said she never felt unsafe in Moscow but said she and other American students did receive a couple of emails from State Department officials telling to them to avoid certain areas–and certain behaviors.

“I didn’t feel threatened at any time, but it was kind of weird getting those emails about ‘toning down the American-ness,’” she said. “I guess they didn’t want us going around waving American flags or something.”

Besides the emails from the State Department, Lindsey said politics didn’t figure very heavily into her trip to Russia.

“What the Russian people told us was probably what a lot of Americans would tell them if they were visiting here during some kind of crisis,” Lindsey said. “They told us to separate the people from the government and to see the country as its people.”

And it was the people in Russia, Lindsey said, that made the biggest impression on her.

“I learned so much about ballet. I learned so much about myself and how to keep pushing myself,” she said. “But I guess the most important thing I learned is that people are people, no matter where in the world they call home.”

Almost as soon as she returned home to Mountain Brook, Lindsey began making plans to perform in the Birmingham Ballet’s presentation of “The Nutcracker” Dec. 13-14.

It was the Birmingham Ballet’s version of the classic tale that first inspired Lindsey to devote her life to dance.

“I was taking creative movement classes at 3 and jazz classes until I was 10, but when I was 10, I tried out for ‘The Nutcracker’ and that’s what made me want to get serious about ballet,” Lindsey said. “That’s when I fell in love with how whole and right I feel when I’m dancing.”

From the time she was 10 until her sophomore year at Mountain Brook High School, Lindsey juggled the rigorous demands of being a ballet dancer and a star student.

“I had a ballet teacher say that either you are drawn to ballet because you’re a perfectionist or you become a perfectionist after you get into ballet,” Lindsey said. “For me, it was a little bit of both. I’m a perfectionist, no matter whether I’m dancing or trying to ace a test.”

But the relentless pace started get to Lindsey by the beginning of her sophomore year.

“I was making myself sick. I was staying up all night doing homework after dancing all evening after school,” she said. “I needed more flexibility in my schedule, so my parents looked into homeschooling.”

Now, Lindsey takes classes in the Excelsior Homeschool Co-Op through Evangel Christian School in Alabaster.

“It’s the same amount of schoolwork as going the traditional route, but I don’t have to worry about using an hour for gym here, an hour for lunch here, an hour of study hall here. The flexibility in my schedule is what makes it so great,” she said.

That flexibility has also given her time to devote to something else close to her heart, Lindsey said.

“It’s been great to have the time to get more involved with the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Alabama,” she said. “I’m on the Student Leadership Council, and it’s work that’s really important to me.”

Among other things, the organization provides a “home away from home” for families of patients at Children’s of Alabama.

But before she pulls on her big floppy shoes for the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Alabama Red Shoe Run in January, Lindsey has to tie up her pointe shoes to take on the iconic role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in December.

“I’ve really been working on bringing more emotion to my performance,” Lindsey said. “The technique is there, but I’ve been working on what my Sugar Plum Fairy will convey to the audience. Sometimes it’s more of soul thing than a (foot) sole thing.”

The Birmingham Ballet will present “The Nutcracker” Dec. 13-14 at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Center Concert Hall with shows from 2-4 p.m. on both days and an additional show from 7:30-9:30 p.m. Dec. 14. For more information, visit


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