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Keenan Kampa inspires students at 2014 Grand Rapids Ballet Summer Intensive

Mariinsky Theatre ballerina Keenan Kampa demonstrates a dance step.
Mariinsky Theatre ballerina Keenan Kampa demonstrates a dance step.
Photo by Jon Clay Photo for the Grand Rapids Ballet

When students come to the Grand Rapids Ballet to learn ballet, it is about more than proper technique and professional training. Students get to learn about how to pursue a career in ballet and live a happy, healthy life as a dancer. The Grand Rapids Ballet Summer Intensive program brings some of the world's leading ballet talents to teach student participants. This year, award-winning ballerina Keenan Kampa of the Mariinsky Theatre, comes to the Grand Rapids Ballet as a Summer Intensive faculty member on June 23-July 3. Kampa's rise to fame as the first American to become a member of the historic Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg Russia, is an inspirational story to all aspiring dancers. Kampa teaches the students about more than proper ballet technique, she inspires them to work hard and pursue their dreams.

Keenan Kampa with a young student
Photo by Jon Clay Photo for the Grand Rapids Ballet

Lessons in Hard Work and Perseverance

It takes more than exceptional talent to succeed in the professional world of ballet. Keenan Kampa worked hard and overcame many challenges to earn her position as the first American member of Russia's historic Mariinsky Theatre.

Kampa always enjoyed ballet as a child. She studied ballet with Julia Cziller Redick at the Reston Conservatory Ballet in Virginia, training in a classical Russian Vaganova-based ballet technique. She grew up watching ballet videos of the great Russian prima ballerinas, and was in awe of their beautiful technique and passionate expression. By age 14, she knew she wanted to dance professionally.

Kampa finds Russian ballet to be fluid, soulful, and expressive. She describes Russian ballet, "I've always seen Russian ballet as being very raw. Big lines, but at the same time maintaining classical ballet in its original form as it was intended. Russia is one of the places where ballet originated...To me personally, I see Russian as being ballet in its most honest and pure form."

As a part of her training, Kampa took master classes and competed in professional ballet competitions. She earned a gold medal in the USA National Youth Ballet Competition in 2006, and she won the Russian Pointe Model Search award. In 2007, Kampa was a semi-finalist at the Prix de Lausanne International Ballet Competition in Switzerland, and she also participated in the Kennedy Center's Master Class Series. At the Kennedy Center's Master Class Series, she took a class taught by Ballet Master Gennady Selutsky from the Kirov Ballet (now known as the Mariinsky Theatre) of St. Petersburg, Russia. Selutsky was so impressed with Kampa's dancing that he invited her to attend the prestigious Vaganova Academy, which has trained many of the world's most famous ballet dancers. Kampa was stunned by the invitation and honored to accept the offer to study at Vaganova Academy in Russia, one of the birthplaces of classical ballet.

An Example of Courage and Faith

Sometimes following dreams can be frightening. At 17 years old, Kampa left home for the first time and moved to St. Petersburg, Russia to attend Vaganova Academy. It was a culture shock at first because life was very different. She was so happy to be studying ballet at one of the greatest dance academies in the world, and welcomed the challenge to dance to her full artistic potential. But fitting in wasn't easy, and it was hard to communicate when she didn’t speak Russian. The school dance schedule was also extremely challenging.

Kampa recalls her first year in Russia at Vaganova Academy,"Every aspect of it was so difficult that it was almost overwhelming. It was so challenging. Not just the physical aspect of coming from a school where I danced for maybe two hours a day to being in a school with 10-11 hour long days of rigorous dancing. It was also being on my own for the first time, living in a foreign country where I didn't speak the language, so every time people said something, it sounded like noise. Different food. It (weather) was so cold. There was the culture shock, and not knowing the lay of the land...There were just so many things, that looking back, I'm surprised that I made it through...But experiencing those things is good not just for ballet, but also for life. I'm so grateful for my time there. It helps build character and makes you appreciate things more."

Despite the challenges of being a foreign student in Russia, Kampa bravely persevered, trained hard, and thrived at Vaganova Academy. She found strength in prayer to keep her focused on her goals to overcome all challenges. Her hard work won the respect of many of her Russian peers. When Kampa graduated from Vaganova, she was the only foreign student in her class to receive a full Russian diploma.

Kampa also made a number of lifelong friends at Vaganova Academy. She found that her sincerity and hard work earned their respect and deep friendship. "The director, my teachers, and my classmates ended up becoming like a family to me," says Kampa.

Inspiring Future Dancers

Kampa's success lets future dancers know that almost any dream is possible with hard work and determination. Kampa dreamed of dancing with the Mariinsky Theatre, but it seemed impossible. No other American had ever danced with the Mariinsky Ballet. Yet, she still auditioned for a position at Mariinsky. When she didn’t get the spot, she pursued her dance career by joining the Boston Ballet.

One day, Kampa traveled to St. Petersburg to rehearse with her former Vaganova dance partner for an event, and to visit friends. Ballet Master Gennady Selutsky and the Artistic Director of the Mariinsky Theatre, Yuri Fateyev, watched their rehearsal. Selutsky and Fateyev offered her a position in the Mariinsky Ballet based on her performance, and Kampa became the first American to join the Mariinsky Theatre.

Today she is a coryphée dancer in the Mariinsky Ballet, an ambassador to the Jerome Lejeune Foundation, Paris, an advocacy group that improves the lives of people with genetic intellectual disabilities, and a model for G-Star Raw Denim. Kampa's success inspires students to reach their highest potential and to never give up on their dreams.

Kampa and the Grand Rapids Ballet Summer Intensive

Kampa welcomed the opportunity to teach at the 2014 Grand Rapids Ballet Summer Intensive and work with Artistic Director Patricia Barker.

"I always admired Patricia's dancing. I watched her videos and she is an exquisite performer. She has a reputation in the ballet world for her talents and her career. So when she originally asked me to teach, I was really flattered that she would ask me. I was really excited to meet her in person and excited by what she is doing here (Grand Rapids Ballet). I think Grand Rapids is extremely fortunate to have such an incredible artist taking control...I was so pleased to get to know her. She is so sincere and down to earth. I was also impressed with the students, other teachers, and the facility," says Kampa.

She also enjoys working with the students and watching them progress at the Grand Rapids Ballet Summer Intensive. Kampa talks about teaching the students, "I am inspired by them because of how they work. There are certain students that are so eager to learn. They just listen to you like little sponges. It is fun and they've been easy to teach."

The Grand Rapids Ballet Summer Intensive program runs from June 23-July 25 at the Meijer Royce Center for Dance at 341 Ellsworth SW Grand Rapids, Mich. In addition to Kampa, the faculty features some of the ballet world's greatest talents. The 2014 Grand Rapids Ballet Summer Intensive faculty includes Ariana Lallone (Pacific Northwest Ballet), Sabi Varga (Boston Ballet), Thom Dancy (Big Muddy Dance Company), Nicole Ciapponi (San Francisco Ballet), and Gillmer Duran (National Ballet of Canada). For more information, visit the Grand Rapids Ballet's website or call (616) 454-4771.

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