Maria Sascha Khan

Maria Sascha Khan, now a top-flight dancer in Russia, grew up in Pray. She’ll return to her home state as a judge for the VIBE competitions in Missoula next week.

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One Montanan is traveling farther than the rest to attend the Vienna International Ballet Experience in Missoula, a week of competitions, film screenings and panels centered on dance.

Maria Sascha Khan, who will act as a judge and perform at the Saturday gala, has been working as a principal dancer with the Ekaterinburg State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre in Yekaterinburg, Russia, some 1,700 miles east of Moscow by car.

Khan grew up in Pray. Her father studied engineering at Montana State University, and her mother frequented the Big Sky area every winter to ski.

"She always wanted to move to Montana. They were a young married couple and at the time couldn't afford to live in Bozeman, so in the beginning lived in Pray," Khan said via email.

Her first exposure to ballet came via a retired ballerina who had danced with the San Francisco Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in New York City.

"She gave beginning ballet classes that my sister and I went to once a week. My younger sister, Nadia Khan, and I loved it. She would have us do the parts from the ballet 'Sleeping Beauty.' The boys would be the prince, the girls the princess and fairies, and my sister and I would dance on and on, wand in hand," she wrote.

"This was before I knew ballet could be a profession, but the seed was planted and my journey began," she wrote.

Her parents knew she'd have to leave Montana to pursue dance as a career. She won a scholarship at age 12 and went to the San Francisco Ballet School's summer program.

"It was the first time I was exposed to professional ballet for any length of time, and it changed my life. It opened my eyes and brought me in contact with amazing professionals," she wrote.

She recalls sneaking to the top floor to watch storied figures of the dance world.

"I was in awe watching Yury Possokov, who was just starting to choreograph, working with Yuan Yuan Tan, and Lucia Lacarra rehearse her exquisite 'Swan Lake,' " Khan wrote.

When she was 14, she enrolled at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C., which she described as "ballet boarding school."

The training included dance instruction as well as Russian language classes.

She eventually studied with Marika Besobrasova, directress and founder of the Academie de Danse Classique de Princesse Grace, in Monaco, Monte Carlo.

"It took me two years of searching to find her, and I was stunned when she accepted me on full scholarship within the first 10 minutes of meeting. Just from meeting you and looking you up and down she could tell if she could do something with you or not. She was known for producing principal dancers," she wrote.

After graduating, Khan got her first job in Berlin and worked in Munich, where her sister was dancing.

She said starting the summer programs when she was young was critical to her career.

"My sister Nadia and I were the first Montanans to attend the Royal Ballet Summer Program, which was another amazing experience. For me and all the members of my family, including my brother Nicholas MacKay, who is a full-time student at Vagonova Ballet Academy, in St. Petersburg, Russia, it wasn't only about the things you learn but the people you meet, the wide exposure, and the opportunity to see your level compared to others of your age," she wrote.

Khan, who doesn't plan on staying in Russia long term, gets back to Montana about once a year.

"We always try to make sure we spend time together as a family in Montana as we live all over the world and work in many different cities," she wrote.

Traveling and dance, after all, run in the family.

"My brothers are the first Americans to attend the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, at the ages they did," she wrote.

Her brother Nicholas graduated from the academy's lower school, and Julian "made history as the first American to receive a full Russian diploma from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, having completed both the lower and upper school," she wrote.

Julian is now with the Royal Ballet in London, Nicholas started with the Vagonova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, and Nadia is with the Teatro dell' Opera di Roma in Italy.