Fulbright-Hays Scholarship Recipient Profile: Tara Wheelwright

Tara Wheelwright reflects on her summer on the Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program in Moscow as a Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad scholarship recipient and her love of ballet.

Before going to Russia this summer, my one goal, other than improving my language skills, was to see as many ballets as possible. I had decided to start learning Russian in college because of ballet. Growing up most of my ballet teachers had trained in Soviet conservatories and I was always intrigued by their unique perspectives on life and the role ballet played in their own lives. As opposed to my American ballet teachers who often treated ballet as more of a form of exercise, my Russian teachers approached ballet as form of pure art and emotional expressiveness. An arabesque wasn’t simply a position but a chance to reach out and create an image of something loftier. More than anything though, I wanted to learn Russian so I could eavesdrop on the small talk between the teachers and pianists. What were they saying about us, I constantly asked myself, nitpicking our dancing, criticizing our messy buns?

Fast forward a decade and as a graduate student focusing on Russian ballet I am utterly enthralled by not just the ballets themselves in Moscow but by the attitude of the audience towards ballet and the act of going to the ballet. Every ballet I have attended so far has been completely sold out (oh how American ballet companies wished that was the case!) and the audience is a mix of many different generations. The atrium during intermission is packed with little girls practicing their soutenu turns, chic twenty-year olds on dates, middle aged adults meeting with friends, and babushkas reminiscing about great Soviet dancers. Going to the ballet is not an exclusive event for the few but a chance for all to appreciate a timeless art form together.

The selection of ballets is also wider and more eclectic. There are ballets here that are rarely, if at all, performed in the US. One week I saw The Stone Flower at the Stanislavsky Theater and was completely blown away. The Stanislavsky Theater does not have the same international prestige as the Bolshoi Theater but the dancers, costumes, and music were world-class in every way. The music, by Prokofiev, provides a sinister and vibrant score to a ballet that follows a folk tale from the Urals about a stonecutter who seeks the secret of his craft from the magical Mistress of the Copper Mountain. Like all ballets there is a basic formula: young couple that falls in love and plan to marry, drunk/evil character intent on hindering young couple, and the character who provides the element of magic. What made this ballet so intriguing was the incredibly diverse amount of different dancing happening all at once, and all to a very fast tempo. The result was a form of organized chaos, so many colors swirling together, choreography that created a “jagged” effect of precious stones dancing, and music that grew more maddening until the finale.

After the ballet, I, along with nearly every woman in the theater, made a dash for the bathroom. At first, I saw the mass of women jostling at the door and was about to give up hope, until I realized that this organized chaos had continued. Every woman moved at a frenetic speed, near collisions avoided at the last second, no bickering over who was next, instead an incredibly efficient and frenzied system interspersed with short conversations about the ballet. I left the theater utterly enthralled: this organized chaos on the stage and in the bathroom made me fall in love with Moscow even more.

My experience in Moscow this summer was all made possible to the Fulbright-Hays scholarship that I received from American Councils. Along with deepening my love for ballet, the immersive program in Moscow enabled me to develop lasting friendships and a more thorough understanding of modern Russian culture. Coming back to the U.S. many friends were expecting horror stories from my travels, but all I had to offer was quite on the contrary: once you breakthrough the language barrier, people aren’t so different, no matter where you are.

About Fulbright-Hays Scholarships from American Councils

American Councils for International Education has received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad, to provide scholarships for advanced overseas Russian and Persian language study. Learn more about the eligibility requirements here.

About Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad

The Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, commonly referred to as the Fulbright-Hays Act, was made law by the 87th U.S. Congress under President John F. Kennedy on September 21, 1961. Senator J. William Fulbright and Representative Wayne Hays introduced the legislation, which represents the basic charter for U.S. government-sponsored educational and cultural exchange. 2016 marks the 55th anniversary of this landmark legislation. More information about Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad can be found here.

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