From Russia with Love: American Keenan Kampa studies at the renowned Vaganova Academy

Keenan practicing in the Vaganova Academy's main studio, which the students call "Rep Zall," an abbreviation of the Russian word for a rehearsal hall. Courtesy Keenan Kampa

With her mile-long legs and ridiculously archy feet, Keenan Kampa is the ideal ballet student. But though her technique is nearly flawless, she’s also a quietly magnetic performer with intelligence and class. Keenan, who grew up outside of Washington, D.C., studied Russian Vaganova technique at a local studio. In 2007, the then-17-year-old was a semifinalist at the prestigious Prix de Lausanne competition. Soon after, Keenan was singled out during a master class with Russia’s Maryinsky Ballet. The  teachers were so impressed with her abilities that they invited her to study at the famous Vaganova Academy—a rare honor for an American student. Now in her third and final year at the Academy, Keenan is thriving. She documented the busy weeks leading up to a workshop performance for DS. Read on for a peek inside her life at the historic Russian dance school.  —Margaret Fuhrer


Monday, October 5

Today is going to be a typically busy day! Right now the school is preparing for a performance at the Hermitage Theater in St. Petersburg on October 16, so rehearsals will go late tonight. I’m rehearsing one of the four soloist couples from the “Rose Waltz” (the “Waltz of the Flowers” in America) in The Nutcracker and a modern piece with two other girls from my class. I’m a little nervous about the modern piece—especially since we only have a week and a half to learn it.

The past few days have been especially tough since the hot water and heat in our dorms have been turned off. I’m not sure when they’ll come back on, but I’ve heard rumors that it will be at least a few days. This happens every now and then—it’s just something you learn to deal with when you live in Russia. In fact, in June the hot water gets turned off for practically the whole month!

Wednesday, October 7

Today was a good day. My ballet technique class went well. I’m beginning to feel what I’ve been working on come together. Vaganova technique is extremely detail-oriented; everything is elegant and pure. Port de bras and épaulement are very important, and the teachers here spend hours nitpicking the placement of your head and arms. It makes class harder, but the results are worth it. I think attention to detail is one of the things that sets Russian dancers apart.

I also had rehearsal for the Maryinsky’s Nutcracker, in which I’ll be dancing the role of Masha (that’s the Russian name for “Marie” or “Clara”). In December I’ll go on tour with some of my classmates to Italy to perform The Nutcracker and from mid-December to January we’ll dance it again at the famous Maryinsky Theater here in St. Petersburg. I’m thrilled to be one of the Mashas—it’s such an honor—but I can’t help but feel slightly terrified, since I know it’s going to require countless hours of rehearsing.

Tonight I’m off to the Russian dorms to have tea with some of the girls—and to help them with their English homework!

Thursday, October 8

I’m so cold! Still no hot water or heat!

Today was tough. I had no breaks, and I’m certain I’m going to be sore tomorrow. After technique class in the morning, we went straight into our historical dance class, where we learned a bit of tango (it seems really cool!). Then it was off to pas de deux class. Five minutes after that class finished, rehearsal for the “Rose Waltz” began. Then my friend and I had to run to our modern rehearsal. Even though the teachers knew we were coming straight from another rehearsal, they were still irritated by our tardiness. I was dying the entire time. All I wanted was to be back in my dorm having dinner and lying down!

After a day like this, I can barely manage climbing the four flights of stairs leading up to my room. I’ll spend the rest of the night trying to stay warm, stretching and talking with friends and family on my computer.

Sunday, October 11

We had some time off today, so a group of us went to the Maryinsky Theatre to see Don Quixote. (One of the best perks at the school: free tickets to the ballet!)

Every time I go to the theater I leave feeling inspired. Today we saw Viktoria Tereshkina and Vladimir Shklyarov dance the principal roles. Tereshkina is one of my favorite dancers. Not only is she gorgeous, with beautiful lines and near-perfect technique, but she has the most infectious and exuberant stage presence.

I feel refreshed and prepared to begin a new week of classes—whether I have hot water or not. Watching the Maryinsky dancers reminds me why I’m doing this.

Monday, October 12

After technique class today, I rehearsed Masha. As I practice this role more and more, I feel like I’m building up stamina.

One of the other Mashas had a bit of a meltdown and left the rehearsal in tears. The expectations and demands here are unbelievably high; your instructors want only the best from you and accept nothing less. I have had to learn that when a teacher yells at you, it’s important not to be bothered by it, but instead to realize that they’re being harsh because they care about you. You have to learn not to take the criticism personally. Once you figure that out, those tough words actually motivate you.

Thursday, October 15

The heat and hot water came back on! I don’t think I have ever been more excited about a shower in my life.

Yesterday we had a dress rehearsal at the Hermitage Theater. It’s such a cool place: It was built between 1782 and 1785 by Catherine the Great, and was originally the Czar’s Winter Palace.

Dancing here felt a little strange because the Hermitage stage is flat. Since all of the studios at the Academy are raked, we’re used to dancing on an incline. (That was a big adjustment for me during my first year!)

When we weren’t on stage, we all sat in the wings and watched. Everyone at this school is so beautiful and talented! I can’t believe how lucky I am to be here.

Friday, October 16

It’s show time! After technique class this morning, we took buses to the Hermitage Theater. We settled into our dressing rooms and then had a run-through of the entire show on stage. It was really, really cold in the theater; I had to force myself to take off my sweater each time it was my turn to dance. As soon as the run-through had finished, we all rushed back to our dressing rooms to work on our makeup and hair. Then it was show time! Everything went smoothly, even with the freezing auditorium.

With this performance behind us, the “real” rehearsals for Nutcracker begin. It’s a lot of pressure—but I can’t wait to dive in!

Keenan’s performances in Italy went well and she’s now preparing for her graduation in June 2010.

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