In 2012, Keenan Kampa made history as the first American to join Russia’s Mariinsky Ballet. While technically a coryphée, she danced both soloist and principal roles. But in 2014, the Vaganova Academy graduate made a bold move—she quit the company to pursue an acting career. Her new movie, High Strung, opens in theaters April 8. Kampa stars as Ruby, an aspiring ballerina who, along with a talented violinist and hip-hop crew, enters a prestigious scholarship competition. She spoke with Pointe about making the film, leaving the Mariinsky and her new life in L.A.
How did you come to star in High Strung?
Months before the 2014 Sochi Olympics, NBC came to Russia to do a feature on the correlation between ballet and ice skating. Since I was American, they featured me. A little while later, when the company was on tour in Italy, I started having heart problems. My blood pressure spiked and I wasn’t allowed to perform, so I was given permission to go home and get my heart checked out. I was only supposed to be gone a week. But while I was home, I had my hip arthogrammed because it had been hurting me for a long time. The results came back, and I had worn down the cartilage and needed surgery. The recovery time was eight months, so the Mariinsky granted me a leave of absence.
I was out of hip surgery a week when the NBC feature finally played on the “Today” show and on prime time. Soon afterwards, High Strung’s director, Michael Damian, tweeted me and asked if I’d consider being in his movie. I told him I couldn’t walk but that I thought I could recover quickly. I went out and read for the part, then rehabbed like a crazy person so I could do the film.
Did you have any acting experience?
No. I mean, we took acting at the Vaganova Academy—it’s one of the core classes. And I did drama and musical theater in high school, but that’s it. I asked Michael if he wanted me to work with a coach beforehand or prepare scenes. He said, “I like your instincts—just keep it natural and we’ll work with it.”
What was the filming process like?
We filmed in New York and Romania—the ballet dancers in the movie were from the Romanian National Opera. We did everything out of order, which is typical. The shooting hours are also weird. Sometimes we’d have call at 3:00 in the afternoon and we’d finish at 5:00 in the morning.
The whole experience was so much fun—it was literally a party on set. I would come early to warm up and sew pointe shoes. Then two minutes before rehearsal, all the hip hop dancers would come running in with their music and their sneakers and their track suits and I was like, “I’m so jealous.” They have so much fun.
After recovering from your injury, you told the Mariinsky you weren’t coming back. Was that hard?
It was an excruciating decision. But I was under tremendous amounts of pressure over there. I received a lot of criticism from Russian audiences, as well as from people within the theater, and I never really found my place—not just as a dancer, but as a person. I was very lonely. Also, when I joined a lot of the principals took maternity leave, so I was rehearsing lead roles in addition to my corps duties. I was really overworked and undernourished. But I didn’t want to complain and never said no. I just took what I got and worked as hard as I could. Because of the stress, I started having adrenal problems—I had crazy levels of cortisol and adrenaline, which put pressure on my heart.
When it was time to go back, I just couldn’t do it. I had people telling me, “How can you give the Mariinsky up? You prepared your whole life for this.” But I want to be happy, no matter how great the opportunity is. Plus, it feels so good to be back home.
What’s the biggest difference between dancing and acting?
There’s more freedom with acting. They encourage you to own it—whereas with dancing, especially in Russia, there’s a specific mold that you have to fit. I think dancing is much more stressful. When you’re in the wings in Russia, it’s serious business. It’s every man for himself. And on set, it’s very loving, at least for this film. I was able to do a scene and come off set joking and laughing. I’ve never had that before with work.
Do you miss company life?
I miss the stability and camaraderie. But I don’t like the wasted time in corps rehearsals. I’m in charge of my schedule now and I can use my day how I need to use it. In the intense professional world it’s easy to lose sight of why you dance in the first place. Doing the film was really awesome because I realized why I love ballet: for the joy.
After the film certain opportunities presented themselves that were very tempting, so I moved to L.A. I have representation for acting now. And I finally feel completely well with ballet, which is really exciting. I take class at Westside Ballet and Dance Arts Academy, and I built a little studio in my apartment so I can give myself barre. I have a lot of small projects coming up, which is keeping me busy. I’m just going to take it day by day, and keep up with ballet and acting. We’ll see what happens.