- - Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Keenan Kampa perches on a crimson settee in the lobby Hyatt Regency in Reston Town Center, just miles from where she grew up and began her ballet training. Amid recent dramatic life changes, though, even familiar territory feels somewhat foreign to the 23-year-old dancer, and she’s finding it hard to get comfortable.

Four months ago, Miss Kampa joined Russia’s storied Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) Ballet — the first American in the company’s nearly 300-year history. Since then, her days have brought a dizzying level of newness: new honor and scrutiny, new country and culture, new directors and repertory, new pace and competition, new media attention and probing questions, a new documentary and a proposed feature film. And, of course, there’s the matter of being the new girl in a troupe that’s anything but.

Miss Kampa’s wispy, 5-foot-8-inch frame is strong enough to bear all of these pressures, but she does worry about the weight of the past. In Russia, ballet “is kind of sacred,” she says. “It’s been around for hundreds of years, and it’s part of their history and culture. … Starting work at Mariinsky, I recognize how special it is to them, and I feel like I’m going into this old church or fancy china store that I don’t want to mess up.”

All the publicity she’s been getting is making it more challenging, but the dancer is trying her best to tiptoe around and keep a low profile. Right now, she just wants to concentrate on the work — something she’s been focused, even fixated, on since she was just knee-high to Rudolf Nureyev.

Miss Kampa was just 4 when she took her first dance class at Reston’s Conservatory Ballet. By 6, she says, she was “mesmerized” by the beauty of the steps she learned in class and the stars she saw in videos.

At 8, years before her peers, Miss Kampa was on pointe — and by high school, she was spending her summers at Boston Ballet- and American Ballet Theatre-affiliated intensives. Miss Kampa also took advantage of Kennedy Center master classes and was especially drawn to one taught by Mariinsky Ballet Master Gennady Selyutski in January 2007.

Miss Kampa recalls being excited before even setting foot in the studio but says the class itself was even more thrilling.

“I really connected, even though the teacher was speaking only Russian and I had no clue what he was saying,” she says. “I just loved the combinations he gave, his energy, the class — I loved everything about it. It just clicked.”

Something also clicked for Mr. Selyutski, who invited Miss Kampa to study at Mariinsky’s fabled school, the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg. For the young dancer, this was the stuff of dreams.

Miss Kampa soon learned that dreams come at a cost, though. Russia was a huge culture shock, with its cryptic language, communist legacy and frostbitten climate, and the school itself was grueling. Dancers worked 11-hour days six days a week, pushing through pain, illness, fierce rivalry and harsh criticism from teachers.

“We would all be crying in class,” Miss Kampa recalls.

The dancer channeled her frustration into reaching greater heights and drew on her Catholic faith for grace. Three years later, she became the first American to receive the school’s full Russian degree. An audition for Mariinsky followed, but Miss Kampa received a chilly reception; she was neither introduced for the judges nor given an official response.

A year and a Boston Ballet contract later, Miss Kampa was visiting Russia for a rehearsal and finally received the answer she’d long awaited; Mr. Selyutski himself offered her a spot in the company she had admired since she was a small child.

“I remember going back to the hotel room after the invitation came and just hitting my face, like ‘What just happened?’” she recalls. “But then reality sets in, and you realize what you’re taking on. It’s a huge responsibility and really terrifying.”

The dancer was somewhat glad, then, when she showed up to work this June and discovered she had just two days to learn her first ballet.

“There was no time whatsoever to feel bad for myself, to be scared,” she explains.

Over the next month and a half, she performed parts in three ballets and then, after summer break, leapt into rehearsals for the company’s current U.S. tour, stopping in Costa Mesa and Berkeley, Calif. The company is performing at the Kennedy Center through Sunday.

Although she craves it, Miss Kampa admits that comfort is elusive in her chosen career. A life in ballet has meant tremendous physical and mental challenges, separation from loved ones, missing out on romantic relationships, and countless other aches and pressures. But the dancer’s azure eyes glow as she talks about what she’s accomplished and where she is right now.

“I cannot stress how inspiring it is just being around those dancers,” she says. “I just want to soak up everything I can.”

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