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Catching up with Keenan Kampa, first American to join historic Russian ballet company

Russia's Mariinsky Ballet is the former prestigious Kirov, the renowned ballet company that trained international stars Anna Pavlova, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev. It has now welcomed its first American dancer, Keenan Kampa. This is not Kampa's first experience studying in Russia. She spent three years at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg. Kampa says the way Russians dance is passionate and soulful and says being around the dancers is "inspiring."


By Katie Wall, NBC News

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Two hours before curtain on Friday evening, dancer Keenan Kampa was well aware that her appearance at the Kennedy Center was not just any performance: it was a homecoming. 

“I’ve been coming here since I was a little girl," she said. "And now to be up on this stage, it’s so surreal!”  

Courtesy Gene Schiavone

Keenan Kampa at a recent Mariinsky performance of Swan Lake.

Raised in the nearby suburb of Reston, Virginia, Kampa grew up attending matinees and master classes here.  But this time, she’s back as the first American member of the legendary Mariinsky Ballet. 

Formerly known as the Kirov Ballet, the centuries-old Russian company and its feeder school, the Vagonova Ballet Academy, have served as the breeding grounds for dance icons Mikhail Baryshnikov, George Balanchine, and Natalia Makarova, among others.

But the demanding nature of Russian dance is nothing new for the 23-year-old.  While attending a master class at the Kennedy Center her senior year of high school, Kampa was spotted by a Vagonova instructor and offered a spot at the academy.  “I was just very, very fortunate to have that invitation come,” Kampa softly recalled, her humility almost as striking as her 5’8" frame.

But the move to St. Petersburg was hardly seamless.

An outsider at Vagonova, Kampa remembers her first year as “full of silence.”  Unable to communicate with her Russian peers and away from her family for the first time, she struggled to adapt to a foreign culture and an unfamiliar style of ballet. 

“Everything about that move was uncomfortable- mentally, emotionally, and then physically, too, because the work ethic there is so different from what we as Americans are used to,” she said.

By her second year, Kampa had caught up. Overcoming the initial culture shock and language barrier, she went on to win leading roles in school productions like "The Nutcracker," and ultimately became the first American student to graduate with a full Russian degree.  Still, she was heartbroken when she didn’t hear back after auditioning for a spot with the Mariinsky.

“I had always hoped to join the company there,” she said. “But I knew as an American, and as a foreigner there, it was virtually impossible.” 

Unsure of her future, Kampa signed a two-year contract with the Boston Ballet upon graduation.  When an invitation from Russia finally came a year later, she said, “It was a complete shock.”  Eager to return to St. Petersburg but still under contract with Boston, she delayed her Mariinsky start date to June 2012.

For Kampa, joining the historic ballet is more than a dream come true -- it’s a chance to realize her artistic potential.

“There’s something so special about the way the Russians dance," she said. "It’s passionate, it’s soulful, and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

Kampa's performance in the ensemble of "Cinderella" at the Kennedy Center last weekend marked the completion of Kampa’s first North American tour.  She is now back in St. Petersburg with rest of the troupe.

A perfectionist, Kampa welcomes the rigor the Mariinsky reputation brings with it. “The challenge now is not to work to just work,” she explains. “But to work intelligently, with a purpose. Because in my head is the image of the dancer I want to be.”