|| The Boston Globe
|| October 22, 2010
|| Karen Campbell
Of all the new talent flooding into Boston Ballet this season, corps de ballet dancer Keenan Kampa stands out. Willowy and lithe, with long muscular legs and stunningly arched feet, the 21-year-old Virginia native has the physical goods in spades.
She also has extraordinary credentials. Kampa just spent three years at the historic Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia, which has produced some of the most acclaimed ballet stars in the world, including Mikhail Baryshnikov. In June, she became the only American student ever awarded a Russian diploma by the Kirov Ballet’s prestigious school.
But in Boston Ballet’s upcoming production of “La Bayadère’’ (Nov. 4-14) and in the famous “Shades’’ excerpt that will be featured in tomorrow evening’s gala “Night of Stars’’ program, Kampa’s challenge will be to not stand out. Her goal is to blend seamlessly with a corps of 23 other dancers in one of the most extraordinary choreographic sequences in all of classical ballet. In an opium-fueled hallucination, a seemingly endless procession of ghostly women in white gracefully file slowly onstage in unison walks and poised arabesques until the stage is completely filled with crisscrossing lines.
The ethereal, dreamlike sequence, followed by variations en masse, requires impeccable control, timing, and uniformity. That selfless ensemble precision is challenging for all corps dancers, but it can be especially tricky for a dancer groomed to be a soloist.
“I’m having to change ways I normally dance, certain textures and accents,’’ Kampa acknowledges. “It’s weird to be relearning.’’
At Vaganova, Kampa received some of the academy’s top scores and performed leading roles in productions. So far at Boston Ballet, she has only been scheduled to perform corps work. But she realizes this is a necessary step in her evolution as a performer.
“She’s fitting in great,’’ says ballet master Shannon Parsley after a recent “Shades’’ rehearsal. “Her training leads right into the style of ‘Bayadère,’ and she looks good in the company. She is very strong and talented and has all the potential to move up.’’
Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen agrees, calling her “a major talent’’ and adding, “She is a beautiful, highly motivated, and gifted dancer who works diligently and intelligently. She is well proportioned with clean lines and a buoyant jump. . . . I can’t wait to get her into our process and expose her to neoclassical and contemporary works.’’
Earnest, soft-spoken and refreshingly candid, Kampa comes across as driven and ambitious, but without a trace of bravado. She also seems remarkably grounded. When not at Boston Ballet or working her second job at American Apparel, she loves to draw, listen to music, hang out in Harvard Square, and Skype with friends and family.
“Even though I’m here by myself in Boston, my parents don’t worry about me,’’ she says. “They know I’m not a partier, I almost never drink. This career is too short, and I want to get the best out of it before it’s over.’’
Kampa developed that drive early. She started dancing at the age of 4. She and her sisters, home-schooled by their mother, tried gymnastics and a variety of sports, but it was ballet that really caught Kampa’s fancy. She became enamored of the classical Russian style at the Conservatory Ballet in Reston, Va., where she studied with Julia Redick (mother of former Boston Ballet soloist Jared Redick). “She made ballet fun and interesting,’’ Kampa says. She remembers learning to pirouette by spinning inside of a garbage can.
During a master class at the Kennedy Center, Kampa caught the eye of one of the ballet masters at the Kirov Ballet. A few days later, Kampa received a formal invitation to study at the famed Vaganova Ballet Academy. “I never even dreamed that would be possible,’’ she says, her eyes wide in amazement even now.
So at the age of 18, Kampa packed her bags and moved to Russia, where she began dancing 11 hours a day, six days a week. “It was such a shock in the amount of work and the work ethic,’’ she recalls. “It was like boot camp.’’
It was also major culture shock. Kampa lived in a dorm where hot water and heat were often turned off, usually without warning, depriving comfort to tired, sore muscles. Initially she spoke no Russian, and only one of the school’s teachers knew any English. “For the first year, I didn’t speak,’’ she recalls. “I listened and kept my mouth shut. I closed my eyes and held my breath and just got through it.’’
But with daily Russian classes, Kampa began to pick up the language and make friends. In addition, two of her teachers, Gennady Selyutski and Tatiana Udalenkova, took Kampa under their wings. Though expectations and demands were “unbelievably high,’’ she says, she gradually came to accept that harsh critical attention meant the teachers were invested, which only motivated her more. In addition to invaluable training, she was given a number of solo opportunities at the Maryinsky Theatre and on tour. She was the only foreigner ever to dance the role of Masha (Clara) in the academy’s production of “The Nutcracker’’ at the Maryinsky Theatre.
Kampa says she was drawn to the Vaganova technique for its elegant purity and attention to detail. Some of the looser, more modern works in Boston Ballet’s repertory may prove challenging. “But the repertoire is fantastic,’’ she says. “I really like it. Like with food, it’s good to have variety.’’
And how about the cultural transition to Boston Ballet? “Everyone is really nice, for the most part,’’ Kampa says. “I’m really impressed how the dancers have welcomed me in — very kind, very thoughtful.’’ She adds, “It’s more positive here, more tolerant, laid back.’’
As a young professional, Kampa realizes her motivation now must be internal, rather than coming from the demands of teachers. That focus and motivation were evident in a recent rehearsal. While most of the corps members were lounging, awaiting direction, Kampa stretched her back and her amazing arches, launching periodically into fluid spins. She seemed like a frisky racehorse, chafing at the bit.
“I’ve been struggling with only doing corps stuff, freaking myself out a little from not being able to do solo stuff, worried I might lose that part of my artistry and technique,’’ she acknowledges. “But after class, I sometimes work on my own.’’
Kampa is adamant about maintaining the distinctive Russian style for which she has worked so hard. “If I didn’t have strong goals and expectations of myself, I couldn’t have put up with three years of torture [in Russia], with teachers screaming at me in class every day,’’ she says. “Now I have to be my own biggest advocate. I always have to keep pushing myself.’’
Though she is not yet sure Boston Ballet will be the perfect fit for her — a remarkable admission for a young dancer — she is happy the company offers much more room for promotion than she would have had if she had stayed in Russia. In addition to corps work, she’s rehearsing an “Arabian’’ solo that she might perform in “The Nutcracker.’’
“But I don’t want a part just to get it,’’ she says. “I want to perfect myself, and that will be a constant battle for the rest of my career.’’