A classic American story plays itself out even now at a place called Theater Street in St. Petersburg, Russia. The story begins 17 years ago when a little girl in Northern Virginia watched a grainy documentary narrated by Princess Grace of Monaco about the most famous ballet academy in the world.
Keenan Kampa was transfixed by The Children of Theater Street, the documentary tale of four children selected as students to the Vaganova Ballet Academy. She was captivated by the intensity of the Russian method, by the fact that this school and this method are the pinnacle of the sometimes-mysterious thing called classical ballet.
Thousands of little Russian children as young as 8 years old try out for the Vaganova Academy each year. Only a few are chosen. To be chosen is a life-changing experience not just for the children but for their families, too. They have the chance to be catapulted into a life of bone-breaking hard work but also magnificent rewards and their families lifted out of poverty.
Already entranced by ballet, Keenan started lessons at four-years-old, but the documentary planted a new seed in her that would grow in ways she couldn’t even imagine. The seed was the Russian method of ballet.
The Russian method is different from the American one. Experts say it is more exacting. The girls are made to lift their legs higher, a lot higher and hold it there a lot longer. Balletomanes of each method hold the other in disdain. The Russians feel superior and they probably are.
Americans have no frame of reference to understand the intensity of Russian love for ballet. Imagine an American president not only keeping but also constantly using a box at the ballet as Russian leaders have done with hardly an interruption for three centuries. News reports of the blinding of the manager of the Bolshoi demonstrate that ballet can be a blood sport in Russia.
This was the method Keenan pursued with an almost frightening single-mindedness from an age most girls play with baby-dolls. What she could not know at 4 and 5 and 6 was that she was already learning the Russian method from Julia Reddick, who runs the Reston Conservatory. Reddick brought the method with her when she emigrated from Hungary. Her school may have been one of the only schools that teach the Russian method in America.
And later, providence put Keenan under the tutelage of another Russian teacher. One day into the Reston Conservatory walked Angelina Armeiskaya, who happened to be one of the four students featured in the documentary that so fired seven-year-old Keenan’s imagination. How had she found her way to Northern Virginia and to the school where Keenan went?
There are pictures of Keenan from around that time still hanging on the walls at the Reston Conservatory. The little girls are lined up at the barre for a formal picture. All of the girls are doing something wrong, an arm less than precise, a foot out of place, a slouch. Not Keenan. Every muscle, every bone, every appendage precise, perfect, at least to our untrained eyes.
Such precision paid off. At 17 she was dancing in a master class at the Kennedy Center. A distinguished man stood nearby and watched. Gennady Selyutsky, a professor at the Vagonava Academy, a ballet master of the company, and a distinguished Russian artist, was not looking for greatness; he was watching Americans after all. But then he saw Keenan dance and he did something he had never done before. On the spot, he asked Keenan to come to the Vagonava Academy in Russia, the first American ever invited.
It is important to know the family Keenan comes from. They are faithful and orthodox Catholics. Their faith guides all aspects of their lives. And they are remarkably talented. Her father Joe was a pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles farm system and now runs a successful commercial real-estate firm. Her mother Kate is an accomplished artist. Still in her teen years, Keenan’s sister Courtney won awards as a poet in New York City. But the important thing about the Kampa family is their deep Catholic faith.
The Kampas believed Keenan had a gift from God and so they chose to cooperate.
Eighteen-year-old Keenan, with her parents, boarded a plane at nearby Dulles Airport in Washington DC and flew to St. Petersburg, Russia, 4500 miles away, utterly foreign, only 16 years on the other side of the Soviet collapse, into a Russia that was wracked with corruption, and to a large extent run by gangsters and oligarchs, a challenging place, to say the least, for a home-schooled girl.
One cannot imagine the pain her parents felt when they eventually turned from her and left their daughter in that place. But, the place was “Teatralnaya ploshchad,” Theater Street, what she had only seen in grainy color on film but lived constantly in her imagination with every youthful balançoire, brisé, tombé.
The Vaganova is the open door to a life of realized dreams. It is the direct pipeline to what many consider the best ballet troupe in the world. Some say the Bolshoi but many others say it is the Mariinsky.
The Mariinsky Ballet was founded in 1740 only two years after the founding of the Imperial Theater School and came to employ the most prominent names in ballet history. The school and the corps were both closed in the early years of Soviet rule when they were considered symbols of tsarist power but revived later as the Soviet Ballet and then changed to the Kirov in 1934, named for the assassinated Bolshevik hero Sergey Kirov.
The Vagonava was the training ground for dancers known worldwide by their last names, Baryshnikov, Nijinsky, Pavlova, Makarova, Nureyev, Ballanchine—and the Mariinsky became their home.
Keenan thought she knew the Russian method. She really didn’t. After all, her Russian method teachers only had Americans to teach.
The early years for Keenan in Russia were torturous. Cruelly long days-into-night doing things she did not know her body could possibly do, driven by unforgiving martinets, isolated because she did not know the language, bullied by girls jealous that an American was even allowed into the school.
Other foreigners came to the school but it was commonly known they were there not for their talent but their money. At this time, the Vagonova was hurting for funds. The Soviet treasury long gone, they had to go begging and they charged exorbitant rates to foreigners to cover the cost of generally more talented but poor Russian students. None of them ever received full Russian degrees upon graduation, only lesser degrees that even looked different. And none ever went on to the Mariinsky itself.
The other girls considered Keenan no better than that. She had to endure insults, silences, and backstabbing. She was warned to check her ballet shoes every morning for broken glass.
When you meet Keenan you find a shy, soft-spoken, breathtaking beauty. And though she seems timid, you know her spine is not of steel but of something even stronger like titanium, tungsten or osmium.
Though she is a faithful Catholic pledged to chastity, she is also very hip. She had a boyfriend from a famous rock band who is now her good friend. But Keenan is also outspokenly pro-life and pro-family. She donates her time to children with intellectual disabilities.
What Keenan did all those years was work hard, keep her head down, learn the language and pray. She said the rosary every day and often visited an image of the Blessed Mother at a nearby Orthodox Cathedral, one of the most important images in Russia, a never-forgotten symbol of Russian nationalism, Our Lady of Kazan. This was the image that Stalin—even Stalin—had paraded around the city during the Siege of Leningrad in 1942.
One troubling thing she noticed during those Vagonava years was another image, that of rich older men coming into the studio with flowers, courting the young dancers, offering allurements that some likely accepted.
One of the instructors who was hardest on her was one of the legends of the Mariinsky, Tatyana Udalenkova. Every single day that first year Keenan fought to prove herself to Udalenkova. Udalenkova was hard on Keenan and it was impossible to tell if her hardness was also dislike. But something happened over those years. Udalenkova noticed the single-minded dedication of the American girl. She noticed that Keenan worked as hard or harder than the other girls. And she came to know that Keenan was not there simply to cover the Vagonava’s bills. Her immense talent was unmistakable.
Dance Magazine has called Keenan “a stunning paradox of star quality. At 5’8” the lithe beauty moves with the efficiency of a ballerina far shorter. And within her delicate, angelic presence lies an edginess and attack—an intrigue worthy of Mona Lisa—that makes her irresistible to watch.”
The Vaganova graduation year is capped by a performance in Italy. Dancing the lead is considered the crown of a student’s schooling and an entrée to almost any ballet troupe in the world, including the Mariinsky. When the curtain parted that night to a packed house in Torino, Keenan was dancing lead. The Italians loved her.
Keenan made history last year when she became the first American in history to join the Mariinsky Ballet.
Her life is not without struggles even now. She is a Catholic in an Orthodox world. She is an American in Russia. There is enormous anger and jealousy that an American has risen to such august ranks. A coterie of very knowledgeable Russian balletomanes has taken to blogs and even YouTube to take her down. And if anyone has read David Remnick’s fine take out of the Bolshoi Ballet last year in the New Yorker, you know the Russian ballet world is as cutthroat as a Somali pirate ship.
Still, Keenan is in love with Russia and is eager to give something back. She has met recently with the wife of the man who runs the Russian railroad and together they are planning projects to promote the right to life and traditional values. She wants to inspire young Russian girls to chastity and other virtues.
She hopes to meet soon with Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, the external relations head of the Russian Orthodox Church, and hopes to work with him in promoting cultural projects. She will be featured on NBC with Mikhail Baryshnikov to promote the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
And in recent days the immensely powerful Valery Gergiev, head of the Mariinsky Theater, which includes not just ballet but opera and orchestra, made a momentous decision. Gergiev, the man who spent $700 million to build a magnificent new Mariinsky complex, gave the green light to American movie producer Ken Ferguson, former head of National Geographic Films, to make a movie at the Mariinsky about Keenan’s life. Another first.
The Faithful Catholic Girl Who Conquered Theater Street is coming to a theater near you.