Fifty Years of Swan Lake

By Grace Wells-Smith
  • Kain / Photo by Karolina Kuras
  • Kain in Romeo and Juliet / Photo by Andrew Oxenham

The National Ballet of Canada announced in October that Artistic Director Karen Kain will be retiring in January 2021 after fifty years with the company.

Kain joined the company in 1969. She worked her way through some ranks, skipped others and stepped up as artistic director in 2005.

The company has seen a total of nine artistic directors: four female and five male. The two longest-serving artistic directors have been women. Founder Celia Franca served for a total of twenty-four years, and now, Karen Kain has served for fourteen years.

“I feel so fortunate that this wonderful company has been my artistic home for five decades,” Kain said in an email. “These past fourteen years as artistic director have been the most rewarding, and challenging, of my career.”

Her career began when she graduated from Canada’s National Ballet School and joined the corps de ballet in 1969. She was promoted to principal dancer just two years later, at age nineteen, when she filled in for Veronica Tennant in Swan Lake. Twenty-three years later, in 1994, she performed her final Swan Lake. And now, another twenty-six years later, to mark her fiftieth anniversary with the company, she will be directing and staging a new Swan Lake this coming June.

Sonia Rodriguez, who is celebrating her thirtieth anniversary with the company, is no stranger to Swan Lake. She was promoted to principal dancer in 2000, overlapping with the end of Kain’s performance career.

“It was very inspiring for a seventeen-year-old just coming into the company to have somebody to look up to like that and to be able to actually perform in ballets where she would be the first lead and I would be the second lead,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez also explained that when Kain became artistic director, it felt like an organic shift. “It’s always a scary moment, I think, for dancers when a big change like this happens because you don’t know who is going to come in and what their vision is going to be,” she said. “So with Karen, it felt very natural because she had always been part of this institution. … It was very calming.”

And for dancers with priorities outside of ballet, Rodriguez said having a female artistic director with a different approach has allowed for dancers to fulfill their personal lives, as well as their professional lives. “When the time has come that dancers have wanted to have children and things like that, she’s always been very supportive,” she said. Rodriguez is a mother of two.

Under Kain’s leadership, Rodriguez danced in the company’s first tour to Russia in October 2017. The company said that increasing international tours was one of Kain’s goals. She has accomplished this goal twenty-three times. She also commissioned and acquired sixty-five new works and completed the company’s biggest fundraising campaign to date, raising $104 million. The company has also been operating with a surplus for the past decade.

These accomplishments haven’t gone without recognition. Kain’s awards include her appointment as a Companion of the Order of Canada, the highest level of the order, her appointment to the Order of Ontario and her Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement.

“Karen Kain is an extraordinary artist and an extraordinary leader,” said Cornell C.V. Wright, the board chair of The National Ballet of Canada, in the company’s press release. “While her visionary leadership will be greatly missed … I am so pleased and grateful she has agreed to continue her connection with the company as Artistic Director Emeritus.”

While Kain said she is delighted to continue in this role, she’s also looking forward to other things. “Having a life!” she said. “Joking aside, I really am looking forward to some downtime.”


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