Reflections from Karen Kain

On the importance of touring and her twelfth year as artistic director of The National Ballet of Canada By Jillian Groening
  • Kain with Spencer Hack, Tiffany Mosher, Miyoko Koyasu and Francesco Gabriele Frola / Photo by Karolina Kuras
  • Kain / Photo by Karolina Kuras
  • Jenna Savella and Robert Stephen in Robert Binet's The Dreamers Ever Leave You / Photo by Karolina Kuras
  • Harrison James and Elena Lobsanova in Robert Binet's The Dreamers Ever Leave You / Photo by Karolina Kuras

On October 3rd, The National Ballet of Canada (NBoC) will be in Paris to present the contemporary ballet work Nijinsky, choreographed by the American artist John Neumeier, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysée. Soon after, NBoC will set their sights on London, where they will perform Canadian dance wunderkind Robert Binet’s The Dreamers Ever Leave You in the industrial setting of Printworks in the area of Canada Water, United Kingdom. The work, a response to Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris’s paintings depicting northern landscapes of Canada, will be performed by dancers from both NBoC and the UK.

The two momentous touring opportunities are occurring at the start of Karen Kain’s twelfth season as artistic director. The Dance Current caught up with Kain as she reflects on her time spent with the company and gets prepared for the lively season ahead.

Originally from Hamilton, ON, Kain grew up under the Toronto-based company, receiving her training at Canada’s National Ballet School before joining the corps de ballet of NBoC in 1969. She was promoted to principal dancer in 1971.

After a remarkable and highly esteemed dance career, Kain grew into the role of artistic director, first from the position of artist-in-residence, which was later expanded to artistic associate under colleague James Kudelka. She was named artistic director in 2005. “I’ve only realized it in these years as a director – how much I learned from other directors,” Kain says. She stresses the importance of personal relationships, “I learned about the effect that being supportive and positive can have on people, but also being honest with people and not making stuff up to make them feel better.”

While she was able to observe and learn during her time working with artists such as Rudolf Nureyev, Erik Bruhn and Reid Anderson, she had to discover on her own how to overcome the critics. “It was very hard in the beginning because I was very sensitive and it was kind of a personal breakthrough when I realized that I will never be able to make everyone happy,” Kain expresses. “I just do my best and hold my head up and try not to let it affect me negatively and make me not enjoy my work. It was a conscious decision.”

Kain’s grounded composure has turned into one of the most important aspects of her role as artistic director. “You have to be true to yourself and try to care more about the organization than you do about yourself.” She also mentions that you’re hired for your taste, as that is what will dictate which dancers you hire and which works you will bring into the repertoire.

The other important aspect of the job is knowing her community. “There is an advantage to growing up in an organization and having years and years to form your opinions about what you love and don’t love.”

This strong curatorial base is exactly how Kain can formulate a season without the dark shadow of a deficit. “I hope that by exposing my public to the full range [of ballet works] as I see it, and by having dancers that are capable of dancing the full range, the exposure will breed familiarity and will breed understanding and respect for the full spectrum,” Kain explains.

While the role of artistic catalyst is taxing, Kain stays motivated by two things: “the calibre of the artists that work here and the ability I have been given.” She attributes the latter to “the generosity of a number of people and the support” she has within the organization. “I think those two things are what inspire me the most and are what keep me loving my job.”

During Kain’s distinguished dance career, she had the good fortune to perform across the globe with companies such as Paris Opéra Ballet, Roland Petit’s Le Ballet National de Marseilles, the Bolshoi Ballet and many more. “It’s something I had in my youth and it’s something that I try to replicate for the artists of today.”

Fundraising has also played a pivotal role in allowing NBoC to present new work, as well as the freedom to be able to tour. With today’s slimmer budgets, Kain is endlessly grateful for the independent support NBoC receives. With backers who support the creation and touring of new work, Kain is able to siphon that support toward the dancers.

It can be difficult to quantify exactly how touring benefits a company. It not only gets the artists seen and offers more performance opportunities but also challenges the organization to be compared to other major companies. “It’s good for us,” Kain shares. “I think for my artists it’s very motivating to be seen elsewhere than just in Toronto, Ottawa, Montréal and Vancouver. It’s important to be seen on an international stage. If I want to attract and maintain the best artists that I can get that are really international level, [touring] is one of the ways you can do that.”

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