On leaving the Mariinsky and starring in High Strung
In High Strung, Kampa plays a ballet dancer on scholarship at a prestigious New York City school. Photo courtesy Riviera Films.
There’s something about Keenan Kampa that sets her apart from the average ballerina. Both onstage and off, she is unfiltered, vulnerable and real. After becoming the first American to join the Mariinsky Ballet in 2012, she was almost immediately cast in principal roles, bringing a firestorm of criticism and sniping from some of the company’s Russian fans. Now, she’s left her coveted spot at the Mariinsky behind and is starring in the long-awaited dance film High Strung.
What initially brought you back to the U.S.?
I moved back to have hip surgery in January 2014. I’d had stress fractures in my foot for about three months, and was compensating a lot. In Russia, I had trouble saying “no.” There is no union there, and I worked so much, at times 11 hours a day, every day. I was planning to go back after I recovered, but at the last minute, I decided to stay in L.A. I wasn’t happy in Russia, and I missed my family.
How did you land the lead in High Strung?
NBC came to Russia for the Olympics, and they did a feature on me as an American dancer. High Strung’s director saw it and set up a phone call. Once I got off crutches from my hip surgery, I went to L.A. and read, but I still couldn’t dance. I eventually sent video samples from a class I was giving myself.
What was most challenging for you?
The dance sequences. Ballet is an art form that shouldn’t be seen from some angles. When you’re filming, you have so many cameras on you. I got really insecure, worried that they were filming something that wasn’t flattering.
What was it like seeing yourself on screen?
I wanted to bury myself in a hole. There are moments when you think you look so ugly or stupid. I can tell the days when I first started acting versus those days toward the end.
What have you been doing since?
I’m working on a couple of acting projects. I put together a gala for the Lejeune Foundation in France this summer, which raises money for genetic research and has a clinic for kids with Down syndrome and other conditions.
Do you ever miss company life?
People are quick to assume that the life of a ballet dancer is glamorous, but the daily grind is hard to keep up. If you’re constantly getting criticized, it takes every ounce of joy out of ballet. Now, I’m meeting incredible people with acting, but I’m still able to fall back in love with ballet each day. It’s not a job anymore, but a passion.
What does the future look like?
I’d love to see how successful I could be with acting. Doing the film was new and exciting and challenging. But there’s more to be done with dance and ballet. I’m waiting to see if I miss company life.
James Whiteside (Jayme Thornton for Dance Magazine)
Say you're perpetually impeccable designer Thom Browne. Say you're planning your Spring 2020 Paris menswear show along a "Versailles country club" theme. Say you want a world-class danseur to open the show with some kind of appropriately fabulous choreography.
Who do you call? James Whiteside, of course. On Saturday, the American Ballet Theatre principal—wearing pointe shoes and a glorious pinstriped tutu—kicked off Browne's presentation at the École des Beaux-Arts with a 15-minute, show-stealing solo. Whiteside choreographed the piece himself, with the help of detailed notes from the designer.
I'd been a professional dancer for five years when I realized the pain I'd been feeling in my hip and down my sciatic nerve was not going away. I had been treating it for two years as we dancers do—with regular visits to my masseuse, physical therapy, baths, ice and lots of Aleve—but I never stopped dancing. It finally dawned on me that if I kept going at the speed I was going (which was, well, speedy), the pain would only get more severe and unrelenting, and I might never dance again.
I told myself I'd take two months off, and all would be better.
That first morning when I woke up at 10 am, I had no idea what to do with myself. My life until that moment had been dictated by class and rehearsal, every hour accounted for. How should I fill the huge swath of time ahead of me?