|Currently in the corps of Boston Ballet, Keenan Kampa is famous among dancers as the first American to earn a full Russian diploma from Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia. This year, Keenan is making history again, as the first American to join the legendary Mariinsky Ballet.
Both her three-year Academy course and her new company position (she'll join as a coryphée, one level above corps de ballet) came via personal invitation from the artistic staff.
As a teen, studying with Julia Cziller Redick at Conservatory Ballet in Reston, Virginia, she was selected for The Kennedy Center's Ballet Class Series, a program of master classes with visiting ballet companies. One of those classes happened to be with Mariinsky ballet master Gennady Selyutsky. After the class, Selyutsky asked her if she'd be interested in studying in St. Petersburg.
"It was surreal," she says of the invitation, which was followed by a second day at The Kennedy Center, meeting the artistic director and being given his seat to that day's performance of Romeo and Juliet.
In fact, it was the fulfillment of a dream, but one that she never expected to have the chance to strive for. "I'd grown up watching videos of Kirov and Bolshoi stars. They were my idols and I tried to emulate them," she says. As to the Mariinsky, "I thought I'd be lucky to see a picture of it," she quips. "I'd watched The Children of Theatre Street so many times."
Deciding to accept the offer "wasn't even a question," she says. "I called my Mom and said, 'you're not going to believe this!'"
Of course, moving to Russia on her own was challenging. "I did a lot of crying, but I was lucky that my Mom could visit" frequently, she says. After the first year, she was able to Skype with her family, which she says made a big difference in allaying homesickness.
Keenan never took her position at the Academy for granted. "I was excited to be there for just one year, especially when I got there and saw the talent and realized the amount of work I'd have to do to catch up." She was grateful to be invited for a second year, at the end of which she was chosen for the lead in the student Nutcracker the following year, a clear sign of success.
Still, she had no particular expectations of joining the Mariinsky. "It was always a long shot, and I didn't ask; I didn't feel it was my place as a foreigner," she explains.
During her last semester in St. Petersburg, Boston Ballet called to offer her a place in the corps. "I'd taken class for two days while on break the previous year, and Mikko [Nissinen, Boston's artistic director] remembered me," she says.
Returning to Russia was in the stars for Keenan, though. The invitation came only a year later, in a scene reminiscent of that historic Kennedy Center day in 2007. Last summer, she was visiting St. Petersburg to rehearse with her favorite partner, Alexey Popov, with whom she'd studied and danced at the Academy, for an upcoming gala in Indianapolis. Ultimately, Popov wasn't able to travel to the U.S. for the gala, but the visit had more far-reaching consequences.
"Selyutsky came in to help us rehearse, and he brought the artistic director," Keenan recalls. "They watched, and they asked me to do fouettés [and other steps] and show my extension." She was sent to the artistic director's office and offered the coryphée position on the spot.
"It was great," she says. "I had already signed with Boston for this season, but they respected that." Her Boston Ballet contract ends on May 20, and a week or two later she'll fly to Russia, where the company has an apartment waiting for her.
She'll be getting right to class and rehearsal upon arrival. "Here, there is a long summer break, but there they keep working, with only two weeks off," she explains.
Keenan knows from experience that she'll miss home and family while she's in Russia, for an indefinite period this time. She's looking forward to a busy touring schedule, though, which she expects will make family visits easier.
She offers valuable advice for teens who aspire to follow in her footsteps, with study at the Vaganova Academy, which has a special program for international students.
"Make sure to stretch a lot, because their flexibility is insane!" she says. "Pick Russian dancers you admire and watch them dancing. When you're in class, see them in your mind and try to emulate them. Also, make a good videotape, or find the opportunity to audition in person."
For those who make it to St. Petersburg, she advises strong adherence to the teachers' instructions. "Work as hard as you can and do just what they say," she says. "You're in the best of hands."