10 Minutes with Keenan Kampa
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.
What happens during a performance is the product of the painstaking process of realizing an artistic vision. Whether held beforehand, afterward, offsite or online, audience discussions tend not to be so preordained, easily thrown off track without a skilled moderator at the helm.
"I'm someone who dreaded talkbacks and Q&As," admits Bill Bragin, former director of public programming at Lincoln Center. "While I was in New York, a lot of the time it was just audience members trying to show off how smart they were."
These events present a pile of difficult questions: How much do you reveal about a piece before it's shown? How can a conversation designed to hit key points feel casual and spontaneous? How do you cater to the needs of diverse attendees, from novice dancegoers to lifelong fans to scholars and critics? And how do you avoid smothering dance with language, flattening all its complexity?
If you think becoming a trainee or apprentice is the only path to gaining experience in a dance company environment, think again.
The University of Arizona, located in the heart of Tucson, acclimates dancers to the pace and rigor of company life while offering all the academic opportunities of a globally-ranked university. If you're looking to get a head-start on your professional dance career—or to just have a college experience that balances company-level training and repertory with rigorous academics—the University of Arizona's undergraduate and graduate programs have myriad opportunites to offer:
Yes, we realize it's only August. But we can't help but to already be musing about all the incredible dance happenings of 2019.
We're getting ready for our annual Readers' Choice feature, and we want to hear from you about the shows you can't stop thinking about, the dance videos that blew your mind and the artists you discovered this year who everyone should know about.
I dance to encourage others. The longer I dance, the more I see that much of my real work is to speak life-giving words to my fellow artists. This is a multidimensionally grueling profession. I count it a privilege to remind my colleagues of how they are bringing beauty into the world through their craft. I recently noticed significant artistic growth in a fellow dancer, and when I verbalized what I saw, he beamed. The impact of positive feedback is deeper than we realize.