When a friend sent independent film producer Ken Ferguson a YouTube video of ballerina Keenan Kampa, he sensed almost immediately her story would make a compelling and inspirational feature film.
“When I saw her dance, I was so moved. I contacted her and knew at once there was a feature film in the offing,” said Ferguson of Great Falls, whose Reston-based independent film company, Beach Mill Productions, is developing the project.
A Reston native, the 23-year-old Kampa is a rising star. She trained for 14 years at the Conservatory Ballet in Reston, and this month will leave for St. Petersburg, Russia, to join the famed Mariinsky Ballet.
Although last year David Hallberg, a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater, was the first American to become a principal dancer with Russia’s fabled Bolshoi Ballet, Kampa — a member of the Boston Ballet since 2010 — is the first American invited to join the legendary Mariinsky company. The famed group was founded in the 18th century and formerly known by its Soviet name, the Kirov.
Admittedly “starstruck,” Kampa, who lived in Reston until she was 12 and then moved with her family to neighboring Oak Hill, has a photograph of herself and Hallberg taken when she was 12 and hopes to connect with him in Russia.
Setting another precedent, Kampa also was the first American to receive a full Russian diploma from the storied Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Peterburg, whose illustrious alumni include Nijinsky, Balanchine, Nureyev and Baryshnikov — whom she met for the first time recently.
“She is going to make history. No American has ever done what she’s done,” said Ferguson, at a May 23 screening at the Hyatt Regency Reston of “American Ballerina: An Improbable Journey to Russia,” a short, rough-cut documentary.
Tracing Kampa’s steps from the Conservatory Ballet — where she trained under Julia Cziller Redick since 4 — to the Vaganova Academy at 18 and now to the Mariinsky, the documentary is a working tool rather than a finished product. Screened as part of a reception and special “sendoff” hosted by the Arts Council of Fairfax, it was created, Ferguson said, to illustrate to potential feature film investors the power of Kampa’s story.
Philip Snare, 55, of Vienna, who is Kampa’s agent and chief business development officer for the proposed feature film, shares Ferguson’s enthusiasm.
Kampa’s “extraordinary” story, he said, consists of the same uplifting struggles and triumphs that made films like “The Chariots of Fire” such successes.
Snare, who met Ferguson doing volunteer church work in McLean, pointed out the independent film producer has a history of being involved in projects that “move both the heart and mind.”
As COO and CFO at National Geographic Television and Film between 1997 and 2006, Ferguson, 54, developed and launched the Worldwide National Geographic Channel.
He also created the National Geographic Society’s feature film business, which produced “Snow Dogs” (2002) for Disney and was a key investor in “K-19: The Widowmaker” (2002), starring Harrison Ford and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who later won an Academy Award for “The Hurt Locker.”
In addition, during his tenure, National Geographic co-produced the Academy Award winning documentary “March of the Penguins” (2005). He is credited with recruiting Morgan Freeman to narrate the film.
Ferguson plans on casting an actress to portray Kampa with Kampa performing the dance sequences.
A lithe, 5-foot-8 blonde, Kampa’s delicate beauty belies an extraordinary tenacity, mental toughness and disciplined talent — all of which were tested on her path to the Mariinsky.
In the film and during the reception, Kampa recalled for the almost 200 guests — many from Fairfax County dance companies — her journey’s dramatic peaks and valleys.
“It’s wonderful to invite the dance community to come out and celebrate the tremendous accomplishments of one of their own,” said Linda Sullivan, president and CEO of the Arts Council of Fairfax County.
During her 14 years at the Conservatory Ballet — initially chosen by her mother from the Yellow Pages as one of any number of childhood pursuits — Kampa was steeped in classical ballet training, including the Vaganova method that Redick learned as a child in her native Hungary.
Redick recalled Kampa was “one of those children who was always ready and willing and able. ... [She] sincerely wanted to understand not only in her head but in her body.”
After attending intensive summer programs at both the Boston Ballet and American Ballet Theater in New York City, Kampa turned down rare opportunities to train at both places, choosing instead to stay with Redick. But each time she said “no,” she feared “is this going to bite me.”
Her mother, Kathleen Kampa, 57, who homeschooled Keenan and her three sisters admitted, “We weren’t ready to give her up.”
Asked about the most important things Redick taught her, Kampa said “integrity” and “sincerity.” And the favorite thing that Redick taught her? “She let me jump like a boy,” Kampa said smiling.
In 2007, Kampa received an offer she couldn’t refuse — the beginning of a dream she once thought impossible.
After a Kennedy Center master class taught by Mariinsky Ballet Master Gennady Selyutsky, he singled her out and, despite knowing the dissension it might cause, invited Kampa to study at the 274-year-old Vaganova Ballet Academy.
“It was amazing that Gennady had the backbone to overlook the fact that she was an American,” Redick said.
“I call him the Branch Rickey of ballet,” Snare said.
Like Rickey, who signed Jackie Robinson with the intent of breaking MLB’s color barrier, Selyutsky “has a reputation for finding talent that has character, spine and can go the distance.”
Snare added, “He knew he was opening a Pandora’s box, but he cared more about the art form. He picked the one girl on that fateful June day who had the dream, talent, will to succeed, and who could survive Vaganova.”
Once in St. Petersburg, Kampa suffered major culture shock. Speaking hardly any Russian that first year, she endured incessant, sometimes brutal, hard work; harsh criticism from instructors; emotional abuse from threatened Russian students; and intense periods of loneliness.
Kampa got through that first year by “staying as emotionally unattached as possible.” She was warned to always check her pointe shoes for shards of broken glass before putting them on.
“Everything was hard. … It was very humbling,” she said.
From a devout Catholic family, Kampa, who hopes to someday create a foundation that will allow her to work with special-needs children like her mother, also relied heavily on her deep inner faith.
When her mother visited and was shown her daughter’s schedule, she was blown away.
“I couldn’t believe what this 18-year-old was doing,” Kathleen Kampa said. “Her faith carried her through. … It was worse than [Ferguson] could put up there [in his documentary]. But it was a mutual discovery for them to accept her and love her.”
To keep her mind focused, Kampa listed her goals. At the top of her list in large print, she wrote: “This is an opportunity of a lifetime. Don’t waste it.”
Persevering against considerable odds, by the time, she graduated three years later, Kampa had earned enormous respect and was enjoying the fruits of her hard work and determination.
Especially important to her was the support, in addition to that of Selyutsky, of two other important mentors — veteran teacher Tatiana Udalankova and Vaganova artistic director and former Mariinsky prima ballerina, Altynai Asylmuratova.
“[Selyutsky] saw something in her, but she had to prove it,” said her father, Joe Kampa, 62, who teared up in the film when he described leaving his daughter in St. Petersburg for the first time.
“We had to support her,” he said. “But it was the hardest thing we ever had to do. … By the end of her second year, she knew she had gone a long ways. They started to ask her to dance leads. She was euphoric. … The Russians came to appreciate that Keenan was going to outwork everyone.”
Winning lead roles in the school’s productions of “The Nutcracker” and “Gayane,” she was the only foreigner ever to dance the role of Masha (Clara) in the Academy’s production of “The Nutcracker” in her final year.
“The third year was a blessing,” Kampa said.
Still, her considerable achievements — including receiving the highest scores of anyone in her class for dancing — were not enough. Internal politics and intrigue and jealousy thwarted her biggest dream, joining Mariinsky.
Profoundly disappointed, on the advice of Udalankova, Kampa accepted another opportunity, a position with the Boston Ballet, one of North America’s top companies.
Her invitation to join the Mariinsky, almost a year to the day after she took Boston’s offer, came about so suddenly, Kampa said she had no time to “fret.”
Invited to perform at a gala in Indianapolis, she asked to dance with a Russian partner. When she got the OK, she traveled to St. Petersburg this past June to rehearse, refresh the “longer and bigger” classic Russian style of dance she learned at Vaganova, and reconnect with friends.
While she was rehearsing at the Mariinsky, her original Russian champion, Selyutsky, stopped by along with the deputy director of the Mariinsky Theater. After watching Kampa dance, they made her an offer on the spot.
“I was not prepared,” Kampa said. “It was so surreal … but I’m glad it happened that way.”
“Everyone has a Mariinsky dream,” Ferguson said. “The movie will speak to anyone, like Keenan, who has a dream, works hard and dares to live it.”