Dancer Spotlight: A Russian Edge

American-born and Russian-trained, Keenan Kampa brings her classical allure to Boston Ballet.
Published in the August/September 2011 issue.

Photo by Gene Schiavone

In company class at Boston Ballet, Keenan Kampa moves with the purity and nobility of a classical Russian dancer. In adagio, the long-limbed corps member seems most at ease with her leg by her ear, yet during grand allégro she leaps gracefully across the high-ceilinged studios. “She has everything a ballet dancer needs,” says Shannon Parsley, a company ballet master. “Even though she is shy, you notice her.” And it was being noticed in class that brought Kampa her biggest opportunities thus far: becoming one of the first Americans to study at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in Russia, and returning to the U.S. to join Boston Ballet.

As a student at Conservatory Ballet in Reston, Virginia, Kampa dove into her ballet training, beginning home-schooling in fifth grade to accommodate her dance schedule. By her last year of high school, she was considering studying overseas. She attended a master class for young dancers hosted by the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, that featured the venue’s current touring company: the Kirov Ballet. The teacher, a ballet master at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, the Kirov’s school, was so taken by Kampa’s classwork that he invited her to come train there. It was an extraordinary offer, considering that few foreigners attend the academy, and only a handful of Americans had yet attempted its intense three years of training. “I didn’t have to think twice about it,” says Kampa. “It wasn’t until I got closer to leaving that the trepidation set in.”

Her first year at the academy was a test in perseverance. Her days began at 9:30 am with a Russian language lesson. The teacher spoke no English. After that came a day of dance classes—including character and lots of classical ballet—which lasted until 8 pm. “It’s like ballet boot camp,” says Kampa. And the teachers were far stricter than any she had known in the U.S. “I had one teacher the first year who was really hard on me, and I cried just about every night,” she says.

But her determination prevailed. By her second year, she understood enough Russian to communicate. And she was thriving in technique classes as well. After final exams that year, her teachers told her that she would have the lead role of Masha (known as Clara in the U.S.) in the next year’s Nutcracker. “That was exciting for me because foreigners don’t usually get to do lead roles in the school,” says Kampa. St. Petersburg was starting to feel like home.

During a winter break back in the U.S., Kampa took two days of classes at Boston Ballet. At that point, although she knew she wanted to finish her training at the academy, she also wanted to be seen by Finnish artistic director Mikko Nissinen, who had trained in Russia as well. “Keenan has a similar background to Mikko,” says Parsley. “He liked what she would be able to offer the company.” Kampa received an offer to join the corps, and moved to Boston after graduation.

Today, after a year in the company, Kampa is encountering a new set of challenges. After three years of strict classical training, she now must learn contemporary and neoclassical pieces. “I’m a contemporary infant,” she says. “It’s the fast footwork that’s the most difficult.” She has also had to transition from student to artist. “At school, they were pushing us, screaming at us every minute, ‘Do more! Do it again!’ So now I almost feel guilty that I’m not working hard enough,” says Kampa. But with the same dedication that brought success before, she tackles it all head on.

Kampa looks forward to growing in her new world. “The technique in Russia is so honest,” she says. “Nothing is contrived. I don’t want to lose that certain quality that I was taught in Russia, but I also want to become the type of dancer who can adapt to anything that’s thrown at me. I still have a long way to go, but training in Russia opened my eyes—now, I feel like I have a real sense of what is beautiful in ballet.”

at a glance
Name: Keenan Kampa
Age: 22
Company: Boston Ballet
Training: Vaganova Ballet Academy, Conservatory Ballet
Favorite Role: The title role in Gayane at Vaganova Ballet Academy
Dream Role: Juliet
Idols: Altynai Asylmuratova, Svetlana Zakharova, Sylvie Guillem