Here at Justine we love a good dance movie, so we’re excited about the April 8 release of High Strung, a dance-filled drama following a young dancer and a talented musician as they prepare for a hip-hop competition. Justine chatted with High Strung lead actress and world renowned ballerina, Keenan Kampa, to learn more about her impressive career, both on and off the screen, and to find out just what to expect from the upcoming film. She shared insights about her transition from ballet to film, and she shows how portraying her character Ruby re-kindled her love of dance. Check out our interview with Keenan below!
JM: Tell us about when you first started dancing.
KK: I was about 4. I have three sisters, at the time it was two, and my mom didn’t really know what to do with all of us as a young mother. She just started putting us in all different activities. It was actually my sister that started dancing, and I kind of waddled out of my stroller into the class. At first, it’s always been something that I found intriguing. It just felt good. I think that initially it was really fun because it was with my sisters, and I had the most incredible ballet teacher that presented ballet in a very non-threatening way. There were challenges, but it was never intimidating. She would put on these tapes of the old Russian dancers, and, even as a little kid, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
JM: How did you end up studying ballet in Russia?
KK: When I was 17, the Mariinsky Ballet from Saint Petersburg was visiting the Kennedy Center in my hometown of DC, and I was a part of this program there for kids in the DC area. We would go once a month to the Kennedy Center with a group of about 30 students, and we’d get to take a master class from either a ballet master, a dancer or a coach from the visiting company. I went in for a master class with one of the ballet masters from Mariinsky, and at the end of the class, he pulled me aside. We waited for the translator to come over, and he invited me to come study at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in Russia. It all kind of spun out of control from there. I remember calling up my mom after that class and saying, ‘Mom, I guess I’m going to Russia’ and she was like ‘I guess you are.’
JM: What was it like moving to Russia and assimilating to Russian culture?
KK: That was really, really difficult. When I first went over there, it was just a huge shock. It was completely numbing because everything was so different. Not just being in this crazy intensive program, but I was alone. I was surrounded by people speaking a different language who didn’t understand what I was saying. Everything was difficult. Grocery stores. Road signs. The lay of the land was completely different. But the more I spent time there, the more I got used to it. I ended up really appreciating parts of Russian culture. In the three years I was there, I kept learning more about their history and about the people I met. It was a really amazing experience, as hard as it was.
JM: What were the differences training in Russia versus training in America?
KK: The Russian academy has this unbelievable expectation of perfection. It’s an honor to be there, but every day, it’s never good enough. It’s this strict tradition that’s been preserved for hundreds of years, and there’s such a pride and demand for all the dancers to live up to that. Also, we would have 11 hour days. They just push you. It’s tough love.
JM: After studying in Russia, you returned to the US and worked with the Boston Ballet. How did you end up going back to Russia after being in Boston?
KK: The Boston Ballet called and offered me a contract while I was in Russia. While I was in Boston, I was asked to dance at a gala. The man in charge asked me what I wanted to do, and I joked that I’d like to go back to Russia. He said ‘Oh no problem. Just rehearse with them, and we’ll get the visa worked out.’ So once I finished the first year in Boston, I went to Russia to go rehearse with my partner. The last day I was there that same ballet master who had sent me to the school was walking by the door. He came in to watch me, and, before I knew it, he had left and come back in with the artistic director of the company. They asked me to dance for them, then the director got up, said thank you and left. I went to the director’s office, and he offered me a contract as a demi-soloist for the next season. It was very surreal and very emotional for me. All three years while I was in Russia at school, that was my dream, to become the first American to get accepted to a Russian company.
JM: Tell me how you ended up getting the lead in High Strung.
KK: When the Olympics were in Russia, NBC asked to do a feature on me as an American dancing for a Russian ballet company. They interviewed me for a few days and followed me to rehearsals. Then a couple months later, I had to go back to the US to get surgery on my hip, and I had my surgery around the time the Olympics. I was in my rehab in a hip brace and all of sudden the NBC feature aired on prime time. After it aired, I got a tweet from the director of High Strung, asking if I’d ever considered acting. Later he called and invited me out to LA to audition for the movie. At the end of the phone conversation, I had to break the news to him that I couldn’t even walk, but I was hoping to rehab. The doctor had told me it would be about an 8 month recovery, so I was being optimistic. About 3 months later, as soon as I got off crutches, I went out to LA to read for the part of Ruby. I agreed to send the director videos of my progress in class for them to see. After that, I didn’t send them videos for awhile because I was still recovering, but one day while I was in the studio, I decided to take a couple of videos. I sent them to Janeen and Michael Damien, the writers of High Strung, showing them that I was recovering from surgery. After that, they called and offered me the role.
JM: What did you like most about your character Ruby?
KK: I think for everyone when you start out in ballet, you love the art form. You’re wide eyed, optimistic. You’re very positive because you haven’t really gotten into the industry or been hurt by certain things. I think that after my surgery especially, I was trying to go back to why I loved ballet. It had been a really hard time in Russia, and you really start to forget why you love ballet in the first place. So I thought it was really nice to go back and re-experience that optimism and excitement through Ruby. I think it’s easy, no matter what field you’re in or art form or profession, I think it’s important to always remember why you’re doing it and why you love it. And I think that’s what happened with Ruby.
JM: Would you say that your biggest challenge during filming was your hip injury, or was it acting related?
KK: The most stress I felt were the days I did my ballet solo. All of a sudden it was my thing, my ballet, which I want to do perfectly. It was really tough for me to trust the cameramen, to trust that they’re getting the right angles, and trust that they’ll make it look good. I felt very out of control. You know usually when you perform ballet on stage it’s from the front. You know what angles they’re seeing of you so you prepare your solo just knowing what the audience can and can’t see. So to have a steady cam going around me, it really scared me that they would catch a bad angle.