Everyone is a little anxious at 8 a.m. on the first day of school. What of going to school halfway around the world from home, taught in a new language, where everyone is a stranger.
Early morning one year ago, Caitlyn Carradine, then newly 16, was about to begin studying at the Vienna State Opera Ballet School, in Austria. She had taken the tram from her dorm across town to the school, finding her way by following another student.
Before the first lesson, the school’s director, Michael Birkmeyer, gathered all the students and the teachers and warned them the program would be hard. He then assigned Carradine to the second-highest class.
“I could tell it was way ahead of me,” she now recalls. “And I didn’t like the teacher at all.” Carradine, thinking the teacher was mean, cried during every class her first week. The teacher told Carradine’s parents their daughter needed to learn to cope.
Ten days later, she was moved back one class, to study with Nadja Tikhonova. This teacher seemed even more difficult. “I wanted to go home,” says Carradine. “I hated ballet. I was supposed to be in AP classes at Malibu High. I changed my ticket three times.”
But one hour after her mother left to fly home, Carradine stopped crying and told herself to live with it.
“All the girls were so nice and so supportive,” remembers Carradine. The majority were from Austria, others were from elsewhere in Europe, Australia and Brazil. They reported the Russian teacher’s likes and dislikes to the American newcomer.
Tikhonova, however, insisted to the director she didn’t want Carradine in her class. He told Tikhonova to be patient because Carradine had been studying American technique all of her life.
Then he told Carradine to apply her teacher’s corrections more quickly.
The stress knotted Carradine’s lower back, making even walking painful. She approached Tikhonova with the problem. The dreaded teacher, however, was surprisingly sympathetic. “She seemed upset,” Carradine recalls. “She told me to watch class and to be careful.
“I think that was it. I would sit next to her every day. I brought in a little notebook and took notes. She would tell me who to watch and she would point out the mistakes.” Carradine watched all of Tikhonova’s classes, even afternoons and Saturdays. “So even though I wasn’t her style, and I was an American, she respected the fact that I tried.”
The night before she started school last year, her parents took her to her dormitory room. It took her a long time to unpack her entire wardrobe of dance clothes, the 10 bottles of nail polish, the torn jeans — all items, she soon learned, she was not allowed to wear.
“That night, we had dinner,” Carradine recalls. “It was a shock. I went down to the dining room. There was a big bowl of yogurt, a platter of lettuce, tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers, and a pitcher of ranch dressing. They told me I could have as much of it as I wanted. I was hungry. I wanted a steak and potatoes.”
In her first class, her teacher taught the students how to warm up — something unusual for American ballet classes, which usually begin with those thigh-tugging, deep-knee bends called grand plis. The teacher asked the students to do sit ups, leg lifts and foot stretches, then to jog around the room. She evaluated Carradine’s feet and gave her an exercise to stretch the tops and strengthen the bottoms.
By the next day, the students had forgotten the warm-up exercises. “And the teacher laughed at us because we didn’t know how to jog.”
The only daughter of an actress, Carolyn, and an architect, Christopher, the Los Angeles-area native began ballet quite early and by age 3 was a dancing poodle in her class recital. She was told to walk offstage to her right, but she went to her left.
Of her many teachers, she cites Yuri Smaltzoff as one of her favorites. “He always made me feel like I would be a star,” she says. From him, she learned the love of ballet and of performing. He taught her how to properly select and wear her toe shoes, and, to date, she has never had a blister on her feet.
At 14, she and her family moved to Malibu. “I thought it was going to be cliquish,” she says of MHS, “but when I came it was nice.”
Former New York City Ballet dancer Romy Karz, now a Malibu resident, gave her private lessons three times a week in a studio built on the bottom floor of the Carradine’s home. “I think I got a lot of style from her,” notes Carradine.
In 1998, she and her mother began looking for summer programs. “I knew that this was what I wanted,” she says. “I had to do it intensively.” Her grandmother and mother were touring Europe, seeing the locations her great-great-grandmother, an opera singer, spoke about. Her mother says, “I heard about schools moms pushed to get their daughters in. I finally found it on the Internet.”
Auditions for the Vienna school were open from February through the end of June. It was now the last week of June. The school told Carradine to send a video tape of her work. Karz taped a class and promptly sent the tape. Carradine was accepted immediately, via fax, with a full scholarship.
Her mother notes the difference between European and American schools. “Here, you start kindergarten filling out 20 forms. There, they just said, ‘If you choose to attend, be here September 9, 1998, at 8 a.m. to start classes.'”
“I guess I was flattered,” Carradine recalls. “I think I was scared and excited. I bragged a lot. I wanted everyone to know I was going away.
“But when I first found out, I asked where Austria was. I think I killed my history teacher, Mr. Panish.”
So before she started the program, her parents took her on a tour of Europe. “Then, off she went with two years of high school Spanish to a school that’s taught in nothing but German,” says her mother.
Carradine admits to having had fear of the unknown. “But I played it off like it was the coolest thing in the world.”
She shopped at Patagonia for cold-weather attire. When she told the sales staff she needed clothes for Austria, they worried for her. Indeed, last winter was Austria’s coldest in 50 years.
“It was extremely cold,” she recalls. “One day we had hail and snow.” She and her friends tried shopping one day, wearing many layers of clothing and two pairs of gloves. “And we could feel the cold air getting right through everything. It was very slippery, and none of my shoes worked. But it was pretty.”
Last year, Carradine also attended an international school for her academic studies, six afternoons per week. She had completed her freshman and sophomore years at Malibu High School yet was assigned to a sophomore-level class. So she went to the school’s director and told him she needed to be in a higher-level class.
This summer, she attended a 10-day SAT camp at Stanford. “Dance is a little risky as a career,” she notes. “You can be it one day and not the next. I do want to have a college education and a stable life.” She toured Southern California universities that have solid dance programs. “She’s had enough winter,” says her mother.
During the year, Carradine’s technique improved. Tikhonova changed her students’ head position, telling them how to move the head from side to side, “Like in a pillow.” She changed Carradine’s hands, making her touch her thumb to her middle finger.
Classes were scheduled for 1-1/2 hours per day, six days per week. “But if we’re having a bad class, it’s 2-1/2 hours, and sometimes we come back in the evening for another hour.”
Classes were not taught on a raked floor — the European standard in which the downstage area (near the audience) is lower than the upstage area (near the backdrop). “But there were mirrors,” she recalls of the studio. “And they were terrible mirrors” — the ones that make dancers seem short and fat.
Before the Christmas break, the director told her if she promised more power in her dancing by spring, he would let her return. “I’ve been told by everyone that I’m a sleepy dancer,” she admits.
In December, she returned to Malibu for three weeks, looking forward to seeing the many friends she had made at MHS. She was shocked to find they did not return her telephone calls, and only one came to her Christmas party. “I realized who my friends were, which was shocking, but it helped cut down on letter writing,” she says. At least her younger brother, Henry, now 8, faxed her faithfully.
“But I’ve gotten a lot more independent and a lot stronger after getting yelled at by a Russian.” She also noticed she was less mobile at home. In Vienna, if she needed food, she would hop the tram. “Now I can’t do anything,” she laments.
At first, spring semester seemed no less stressful. Carradine recalls crying through February. “Then, one day in class, I was dancing and I thought, ‘I’m not so bad. I can do everything she’s telling me. She’s telling me I’m good, and I’m doing this variation.’ Everything was great.”
For her Easter break, she toured Spain with a girlfriend. “My mom freaked because she didn’t hear from me. I was just having a good time.”
By the term’s end, she recalls, “They were nastier, but I had more self-confidence so it didn’t affect me so much.” She learned a portion of a ballet for the end-of-year performance. Then, they told her she would not be performing because they gave the role to another girl. “Pff,” she now says dismissively.
She got average grades, as did everyone else she knows of. The school did, however, award her top grades for effort.
She returns to the school this month, again on a full scholarship. She knows she is foregoing her senior prom, a yearbook and a few friends. “But if I were there, I could be on a train going to Italy.
“And I’m flying back by myself. That was my decision. I can do it on my own.”