Born to dance
Northern Virginia Legates’ daughter joins prestigious Russian ballet company . . .
As a young ballerina, Keenan Kampa wanted to dance like the Russians she saw in the 1977 documentary Children of Theatre Street. But it was beyond her imagination that she would ever become one of them.
At 23, the daughter of Northern Virginia Legates Joe and Kate Kampa is not only the first American to receive a full Russian diploma from the prestigious Vaganova Ballet Academy — the school featured in Children of Theatre Street — but she is also the first American to join the legendary Mariinsky Ballet.
A promising talent
In June, Keenan boarded a plane bound for St. Petersburg, Russia, where she will dance as a coryphée member of the Mariinsky Ballet. A coryphée dancer performs in small ensembles and ranks above the larger corps de ballet.
“I never actually thought I would get the opportunity to dance in Russia — not even in my wildest dreams,” Keenan said.
Although as a neophyte dancer she never set a specific goal to join a Russian ballet company because she didn’t think it was possible, Keenan said she was intrigued by the Russian style of dance. “I wanted to learn as much as I could about it,” she said. “I wanted to become as much like them as I could.”
Keenan started ballet lessons at the age of four at the Conservatory Ballet in Reston, Va. As she progressed in her training, despite offers to live and study at schools in New York and Boston, Keenan elected to stay home with her parents and sisters, supplementing local ballet classes with summer programs offered by the Boston Ballet and American Ballet Theater.
Because of her decision to remain at home, Kampa’s parents said she was able to participate in diverse activities, including musical theater, basketball, baseball and swimming. “She wasn’t so immersed in [ballet] that she got burned out and so overworked that it was no fun anymore,” explained her father, Joe Kampa. “She continued to develop her passion on her terms so she continued to enjoy it.”
Nonetheless, she clearly showed promise early as a ballerina. Kate Kampa said when her daughter was a young dancer, Redick told her she could easily have cast her in The Nutcracker as the Snow Queen or Sugar Plum Fairy, roles typically danced by older girls.
Sustained by faith
Keenan says she doesn’t consider herself as a prodigy, but rather a woman determined to do well. “It’s not like I got some special ballet gene. I guess ballet’s always been something that’s been appealing — and though it’s not easy, it suits me well.”
When she was offered the opportunity in 2007 to enroll in the St. Petersburg-based Vaganova Ballet Academy — a school that counts among its alumni Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov — no one was more surprised than Keenan. She was in Washington, D.C., taking a class taught by Gennady Selyutsky, a Mariinsky ballet master. As Keenan approached Selyutsky afterward to extend the traditional “merci” ballet students give the teacher, he took her by the wrist and asked her to wait. When he spoke again, it was to invite her to come to the Vaganova.
Thus began a three-year odyssey during which Keenan would be challenged body and soul.
Language and cultural barriers greeted her immediately upon her entry to the academy. Although French is the language of ballet, Keenan knew no Russian. Then 18 years old, she worked hard to hone her conversational skills.
Meanwhile, in ballet class, she was with students who were intensely competitive. Most had been at the school since they were 11, having undergone a rigorous audition process. “Each year it’s survival of the fittest,” Keenan explained. They, in turn, looked upon her as the stereotypical spoiled, rich American.
At first, Kate Kampa said, “They didn’t like [Keenan] at all and didn’t want to like her. She had to overcome that. She had to show that she was one of them and would work even harder.”
To survive that lonely first year in Russia, Keenan continually consulted “To Keep in Mind,” a list she had written to keep her focused. It began, “This is an opportunity of a lifetime! DON’T WASTE IT!”
As she submitted to the rigors of training, she drew emotional and spiritual strength from her Catholic faith. Reared by parents who modeled the importance of daily Mass and the rosary, she located a church near the Vaganova and immersed herself in prayer.
“Had it not been for [Keenan’s] faith,” Joe Kampa recalled, “she doubts she would have gotten through it. Because she had so much quiet time and was alone, she was able to develop and lean on her faith. It sharpened everything.”
During her third and final year at the Vaganova, Keenan’s family recorded her performance in Turin, Italy, and posted a clip on YouTube. Knowing what Keenan’s faith had helped her accomplish, Joe wondered if his daughter’s story might help others. He sent the clip to friend and film producer Ken Ferguson, former COO of the National Geographic Channel.
Ferguson said he was enchanted by Keenan’s dancing and impressed with her as a person. He went on to produce a 90-minute documentary that is being shown around the country in hopes of attracting investors for a feature-length film.
“The movie is really about daring to dream and sacrificing it all to live that dream,” Ferguson said. “It’s Keenan who makes this story great, not because she persevered and became a great dancer, but because she’s such a great person.”
Upon graduation from the Vaganova in 2010, Keenan’s humility was tested as auditions began for the Mariinsky, the academy’s parent company. At her audition, unlike some of the dancers, she was not given a clear acceptance or rejection, but an indication she might still be considered. That same day was the deadline for responding to an offer from an American ballet company, and she decided to sign with the Boston Ballet.
However, when the invitation to join the Mariinsky came a year later, Keenan says it was a complete surprise. She had returned to St. Petersburg for a visit and during a rehearsal, the Mariinsky director saw her and asked her to join the company.
Despite all she has achieved, Keenan said it’s easy to have humility as a dancer.
“You know what you’re capable of and you know better than anyone what you can’t do,” she said. “In the studio, you see yourself fail a million times a day. So you don’t have to work at humility, but to recognize that anything that goes well is not because of anything you’ve done to deserve it. Anything that happens is truly a gift from God and he’s the one responsible for it.”
Judy Roberts is a Legatus magazine staff writer.