American Dancer, Russian Soul

Photo by Gene Schiavone

Based purely on appearances, you’d think Keenan Kampa would be aching to dance cutting-edge contemporary works. The 5' 8" beauty, with her lithe frame, Hollywood glamour and penchant for hip leotards, has an eye for fashion that spills over into the studio. It’s not uncommon to see her sporting a tie-dyed leotard, cherry-red lipstick and a braid across her head, accenting her short, edgy haircut.

But beneath that chic exterior lives a tried-and-true classical dancer. Her long, slender limbs create extraordinary lines, made all the more beautiful by her supple feet. She knows how to use her length, moving with regal breeziness—a hallmark of her training at Russia’s Vaganova Academy. “The way Russians teach you to use space around you is very grand,” says Larissa Ponomarenko, a ballet master and former principal dancer at Boston Ballet who also trained at the Vaganova Academy.

Keenan spent three years at the Vaganova Academy, starting when she was 18. Although her time in Russia wasn’t easy at first—she didn’t speak the language and struggled to fit in and make friends—it ended up having a profound effect on her. She became one of very few Americans to graduate from the school, and the only one to receive the diploma usually reserved for Russian students. She also fell in love with the Russian people and culture.

After graduating in the spring of 2010, however, Keenan didn’t receive a contract from the Maryinsky Ballet, the Vaganova Academy’s company. Instead, she returned to the U.S. and joined Boston Ballet as a corps de ballet member. But this summer, after two seasons with Boston, Keenan is  heading back to Russia, where she was just offered a contract with the Maryinsky.

Keenan, 23, grew up outside Washington, D.C., and began taking ballet at age 4 at the Conservatory Ballet in Reston, VA. She studied with director Julia Redick, who based her training on the Russian system and shared videos of the Maryinsky and Bolshoi Ballets with her students, instilling an appreciation for the style. “When you see that at such a young age, those are the dancers you try to emulate,” Keenan says. “When I was in class, I’d see them in my mind.”

At 14, Keenan attended her first summer program (at Boston Ballet, coincidentally). “I was discouraged because I was put in the lowest level,” she says. “But that became my motivation and driving force—to get better and prove myself to the teachers.” And prove herself she did: Keenan returned the following year and was placed in the second-highest class.

Though she ventured out during the summers—she also spent two years at American Ballet Theatre’s summer program—Keenan remained at Conservatory Ballet throughout high school. She felt challenged yet comfortable with Redick. “It wasn’t your stereotypical ballet class,” Keenan says. “We’d spend hours on pliés. There was a lot of explaining, experimenting and finding what worked for me. I was never scared to try anything.”

Opportunity knocked in January 2007 when Keenan attended a master class with Vaganova Academy professor Gennady Selyutski. At the time, she was preparing for the Prix de Lausanne ballet competition (she ended up in the semifinals). Although Selyutski spoke little English, Keenan felt a strong connection to him—but she was still shocked when he approached her after class and, with the help of an interpreter, invited her to study at the Academy. She said yes.

Keenan standing near the Neva River and The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia

By August, Keenan was in St. Petersburg, Russia, sitting in a hotel room with her parents, who would be leaving her on her own in 24 hours. “I didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “There was nothing I could visualize. I was nervous.” While she still had the comfort of family nearby, she wrote herself a list of goals. “There were aspects of different dancers that I wanted to see manifest in myself,” Keenan says. She wrote that she wanted the artistry of Altynai Asylmuratova, a Vaganova Academy graduate, former Maryinsky prima ballerina and current artistic director of the school. She also wanted to focus on her flexibility—she had always been a turns and jumps ballerina—aspiring to achieve lines like those of Svetlana Zakharova, another Academy graduate and current Bolshoi Ballet principal. Today, Keenan’s grand battement à la seconde easily grazes her ear, and her grand jetés have length as well as loft.

Keenan says it takes her time to adapt to change, and her first year in Russia was a challenge. There was the language barrier (not even her Russian language teacher spoke English). It was cold, and she didn’t like the food. She had to adjust to the school’s raked (slanted) floors. And the students weren’t exactly welcoming. “I don’t think I spoke much that first year. I just got through each day,” Keenan says. But her classmates eventually warmed to her. “Keenan is marvelously charming, onstage and in life,” says Vaganova Academy professor Tatiana Udalenkova. “She has a talent for attracting people.”

By her second year, Keenan was settling in and improving. The expansive épaulement and port de bras that seemed to come naturally to her Russian classmates began to feel familiar. She also found a champion and confidant in Udalenkova. “She kind of became a mother to me,” Keenan says. “She took me under her wing.”

Keenan hoped to join the Maryinsky Ballet, and with her success in school, a contract seemed likely. But as graduation approached, her teachers began signaling that there might be challenges. She heard murmurs of visa issues (Keenan says it’s a complicated process for the company to hire foreigners) and concerns about the mental strain of being the Maryinsky’s lone American. Udalenkova encouraged her to join a company where she’d have more opportunities to dance right away. Keenan quickly began making alternate plans. During her second year abroad, she had taken a company class with Boston Ballet on a trip home. They had offered her a contract. June 4, the very day she auditioned for the Maryinsky, was the day she had to give Boston an answer. She accepted.

Keenan was heartbroken to leave Russia and overwhelmed by the artistic freedom offered in Boston—but in time, she grew to appreciate life in her new city. “It’s really something special to see the way the dancers here pick up choreography and mold themselves to each style,” she says. “It opened up my eyes to American ballet.”

She also realized that, as a company member, she had to take charge of her technique. “Ultimately, it comes down to me and how I work,” Keenan says. “A teacher gives you an exercise, and you can sweat bullets or you can do it halfway.”

Ponomarenko says that meticulous technique lives inside Keenan. “Her Russian training is just a small part of a puzzle,” Ponomarenko says. “She’ll never lose it. She just needs an opportunity to show it.”

One opportunity came last summer, when Keenan was invited to perform at a gala in Indianapolis, IN. The organizers let her choose her partner and she requested Alexey Popov, her former partner at the Academy. They agreed and she flew to Russia to rehearse with him. On her final day there, Gennady Selyutski, the same ballet master who first spotted Keenan, took notice once again. He asked Keenan if she had a variation she could show him. He asked her if she could do 32 fouettés. “Oh, my gosh,” Keenan remembers thinking. “He’s auditioning me.” Then Selyutski brought in Yuri Fateyev, the Maryinsky Ballet’s director, who asked her to demonstrate a slew of steps: tendus, 16 double pirouettes and fouettés (again!). She also danced a section of Kitri’s variation from Don Quixote. Then the director left without saying a word and Selyutski told Keenan to see Fateyev in his office. They talked for a while and then Fateyev offered her a contract. But Keenan was already committed to Boston Ballet for the 2011–12 season.

Now, Keenan will be dancing with Boston Ballet through May, and then she’s heading back to Russia, where she’ll be the first American to join the Maryinsky. But wherever she ends up in the future—either abroad or back in the U.S.—Keenan has the potential to touch audiences. “I’ve detected the depth of an artist that is not developed yet, and I believe that will be the most interesting part of Keenan,” Ponomarenko says. “She gave me small glimpses of that artistry. It was like a pulsing star.”

Keenan in Boston Ballet's Arabian costume from The Nutcracker. By Gene Schiavone

FAST FACTS

Birthday: February 3, 1989

Favorite ballets: Scheherazade, Spartacus, Romeo and Juliet

Dream roles: Juliet and Cinderella

Dance idols: Sylvie Guillem, Altynai Asylmuratova, Svetlana Zakharova

Favorite foods: Carrot juice and oatmeal raisin cookies. “I’m a health fanatic and a vegetarian.”

Perfect day off: “Hanging out with my three sisters, who are my best friends, walking a lot and going to a concert.”

Secret talent: Keenan designs T-shirts for her friends featuring Russian Matryoshka, or nesting, dolls. She paints each doll with an accessory, like headphones, to match her friends’ interests.

Most-played on her iPod: “My two favorite go-to groups are Dr. Dog and The Morning Benders. Right now I’m listening to a lot of The Smiths, Bright Eyes and The Shins. I listen to music a lot.”

Day job: When she’s not too busy, Keenan works at American Apparel. “Last year, when I first got to Boston, I was shopping and the employees came up to me and asked, ‘Hey, do you want to work here?’ They took a Polaroid and then I was on the schedule. It’s been a nice outlet because it’s a different group of people—and I get 50 percent off.”

Always in her dance bag: Burt’s Bees mint lip balm

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What’s in Your Dance Bag—Based on Your Zodiac Sign

Sometimes our dance bags feel like portals to another dimension—we have no idea what half the stuff buried in our bags even is. (Note to self: Clean out dance bag.)

But have you ever wondered if there's a method to the madness? We're pretty sure there is, and as always, we're pretty sure it's something to do with astrology. That's right, your resident Dance Spirit astrologers are back with our best guess at what you keep in your dance bag—based on your zodiac sign.

Aries

You're always going 100 mph Aries (or maybe even more), so it's pretty much a guarantee that your dance bag is fully stocked with snacks to power you through the day. Granola bars, trail mix, yogurt, fruit. It's like a Whole Foods in there.

You've also usually got about six different pairs of shoes in your bag. As an Aries, you love adventure, trying new things and, most of all, a challenge. So when it comes to classes, you're all over the map. Tap, jazz, ballet, character, modern—you'll try them all.

Something else you won't go without? Your signature red lipstick, obv. How else are you going to show off your fiery personality? (And look amazing while doing it, TYSM.)

Taurus

As a child of Venus, you always want to look your best, Taurus. So your dance bag is a hair salon/makeup station, all in one. If your dance besties need to borrow a hair tie, or are looking for a fun accessory to spice up their bun, they know you're the one to go to.

Also important to you? Smelling your best. Taureans love comforting, luxurious scents, so your dance bag is typically equipped with a favorite perfume or deodorant. (Or both.)

But what's most important is the bag itself—admit it, you've been using the same dance bag for years. We get it, Taurus, nobody likes change, and least of all the stubborn bull of the zodiac. But if your dance bag is really starting to smell like feet (or if your bobby pins are starting to slip through the holes in the bottom), you might want to consider investing in a new bag.

Gemini

Gemini, you love to switch it up. So you're pretty much guaranteed to have at least three different dance fits in your bag at any given time. And your dancewear is always on point. You love to keep up with trends and try edgy, new looks.

Ever the intellect, you usually have a book in your bag, as well. You're always making book recs to your fellow dancers, and you refuse to be bored between rehearsals or backstage.

Though you might act carefree, Gemini, we know that at heart, you're ruled by Mercury—and you have more in common with your sister sign Virgo than you'd like to admit. That's why you always have a toothbrush, toothpaste, and some floss in your dance bag. No way you're getting caught with food between your teeth (or bad breath during partnering class).

Cancer

Not to be obvious, but as a water sign, the first and foremost thing a Cancerian keeps in their dance bag? A water bottle, of course. (Preferably a Hydroflask, S'well or any bottle that comes in a fun color.) No dehydration here, please and thank you.

Your dance bag also functions as a de facto vending machine for your dance besties, since you always come prepared with the best snacks, and you're always willing to share. As a bonus, your snacks are almost always homemade, since you're practically a five-star chef.

And while we're wary of zodiac stereotypes, there is a pretty good chance your dance bag is stocked with tissues. And there's no shame in that—because, really, who can get through a performance of Romeo and Juliet without shedding some tears? Props to you for being in touch with your emotions, Cancer.

Leo

We'll state the obvious, Leo. You love to look at yourself, and sometimes the studio mirrors just aren't enough. So, naturally, you always keep a compact mirror in your dance bag, just in case your makeup or your bun needs an extra touch-up.

You also love bright colors, and you're not afraid to wear more daring dancewear than any of your besties. You've usually got a couple of leotards packed in your bag, just in case you need to make a fashion statement, and they're always fun. Bright colors, loud prints, stylish necklines—you'll try anything.

But something not everyone knows about you? You're an amazing friend, and incredibly loyal, Leo. That's why you've usually got something in your bag for your dance bestie, be it her favorite brand of granola bar, a fun sparkly pin for her hair, or a note reminding her she's a star, on and off the stage.

Virgo

You're incredibly hardworking, Virgo, so you've always got the tools for success in your dance bag. TheraBands, foam rollers, tennis balls—you're the one dancer your teacher can always count on to be stretching between classes.

You also love to be prepared, so you've usually got a makeshift first-aid kit in your bag. The thought of suffering a blister or floor burn without the appropriate salves or bandages makes you shudder, and, hey, it's always better to be overprepared, right?

What's most noticeable about your dance bag, though, isn't what's inside of it. It's what it looks like—your bag is pristine. It never smells like feet, and you've got a hard-core system for what you keep in each little zip pocket or compartment. And TBH, all of your dance friends are jealous, though they'd never admit it.

Libra

Like your sister sign Taurus, appearances are important to you, Libra. You like to look good (no shame in that), so your dance bag is always stocked with the essentials: extra hair spray, lip gloss, concealer, bobby pins and a spare leotard, in case you get just a bit too sweaty.

You also love to socialize, so if this were the 1950s, we would say that you always keep your date book in your dance bag. As it is, you always have your phone with you, and it's usually blowing up with texts from your dance besties asking to make plans.

Your dance bag wouldn't be complete without your secret supply of chocolate. But to be clear: This isn't your average Hershey's bar. Libras aren't afraid to indulge, so you keep a bar of luxury dark chocolate tucked away for when the cravings hit.

Scorpio

You can't fool us, Scorpio—the contents of your dance bag aren't some big mystery, like you'd like us all to believe. In fact, they're pretty basic: For starters, you always have a black leotard or two in your bag. After all, black is your signature color.

One thing that isn't in Scorpio's dance bag? Toe pads. You love to look tough, so you'd never be caught dead wearing toe pads with your pointe shoes. However, this does mean you need a hefty supply of Band-Aids for the inevitable blisters.

You also love all things mystical and, dare we say, witchy. You're the Halloween queen of the zodiac, after all! So it's no surprise you always have a crystal or two in the front pocket of your dance bag. Let us guess…moldavite?

Sagittarius

You're an explorer, Sagittarius, and that applies to your dancing. You're always trying new dance styles, and that's reflected in your dance bag. You always have the trappings of your latest obsession in your bag: heeled shoes for ballroom, kneepads for contact improv, sneakers for breaking, the list goes on and on.

But on all of your adventures, there's one consistency: You love making memories. And that means literally—you document everything. At each performance or recital, you're bound to be the one with a Polaroid or disposable camera in your bag, and you can usually be found snapping backstage candids of your dance besties.

Your other favorite form of documenting? Writing it down. You love to learn, so you're always taking notes. You can usually be found after class scribbling down your dance teacher's latest piece of wisdom. Your dance bag is crammed with half-filled notebooks, and you wouldn't have it any other way.

Capricorn

You like to be prepared, Capricorn. And we mean prepared—for every bad scenario imaginable. That's why your dance bag is a mini survival kit. The first Capricorn dance bag guarantee? A stitch kit, of course. Losing a ribbon on your pointe shoe mid-rehearsal is your worst nightmare.

You also always have at least three spare leotards handy. After all, what if you spill something, or get too sweaty or, worst of all, show up to an audition in the same leotard as your dance rival? No, thank you. As a Capricorn, you're expecting the best and preparing for the worst.

Another key to your survival kit? Headphones, so you can drown out the noise around you and focus on your dancing. And before anyone asks, the answer is yes, you have the perfect playlist—for each and every occasion.

Aquarius

Aquarius, you love helping others. That's why it sometimes seems like your dance bag isn't even for you—it's filled with stuff you bring for your friends. Snacks for one dance bestie, Band-Aids for another, and tampons, of course, just in case anyone needs one.

But when it comes to you, you're all about originality. That's why you always have tons of fun accessories in your bag: striped legwarmers, colorful socks, tie-dyed sweats and more than a couple of fun additions to your ballet bun, just to make it a little more interesting.

You're also a rebel at heart, Aquarius, which is why there's usually something in your dance bag that just borders on breaking the rules. Maybe your studio is strictly black leotards only—and yours is gray. Or phones are completely banned—and you just put yours on vibrate. We see you.

Pisces

Like your fellow water sign Cancer, you're big on hydrating during dance class. But as a Pisces, you're a little more imaginative (and a little less practical), meaning you're usually carrying your water in something aesthetically pleasing, like a mason jar, a tumbler, or one of those fancy water bottles with a crystal in the base.

Unlike Cancer, you're a mutable sign, meaning you can adapt to just about any situation. Counterintuitively, this actually means your dance bag is pretty sparse. Unlike other zodiac signs who feel the need to overprepare in case of disaster, you're comfortable in most situations, and your dance bag reflects it. You like the basics, nothing else.

Something most people might not know about you, though, is that you get cold easily. We're not sure why, but it's a Pisces staple. That's why if you keep anything in your dance bag, it's the coziest of warm-ups.

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