At the age of 53, when most dancers have long since exited the dance world, Karen Kain is the new artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada. As one of Canada’s best-loved ballerinas for more than 30 years, she could happily retire into the sunset, but as she says, “Everything I’ve ever learned or accomplished has led to my accepting this position. I want to make a contribution in this stage of my life and not rest on past glories.”
And those accomplishments are numerous. Five universities have given her honorary degrees; she has received the highest civilian honors awarded by the Canadian government; and she has her own star on Canada’s Walk of Fame. That’s not even mentioning her achievements as a ballerina.
Born in Hamilton, Ontario, she attended The National Ballet School in Toronto. At 5-foot-7, the young dancer towered in pointe shoes, and NBC’s founder and artistic director at the time, Celia Franca, was reluctant to take another tall girl into the company. Kain’s talent, however, won Franca over, and she entered NBC in 1969. After a sizzling debut as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake in 1971, she was promoted to principal dancer.
In 1973, Kain won a silver medal at Moscow’s International Ballet Competition and, with partner Frank Augustyn, was also awarded a special prize for best pas de deux. Augustyn, and later Rex Harrington, were her most frequent partners at NBC. Internationally, it was the great Rudolf Nureyev who partnered her most often, and they appeared together all around the world. As a ballerina, her brilliance as a dancer lay in her ability to mask technique with character. She made dancing look easy, while touching the soul of the viewer with the radiance of her storytelling. Fortunately, the Canadian Broadcasting Company filmed many of her NBC performances.
During her career, Kain performed every major role in the classical repertoire, as well as premiering many new works, particularly those by James Kudelka, NBC’s most recent artistic director. Kain could have joined any company in the world at the peak of her powers, but chose to stay with NBC, often referring to an emotional attachment to the company and the importance of a home base. But more to the point, discerning artistic directors gave Kain extended leaves of absence so she could quench her artistic thirst at major companies around the world, including Roland Petit’s Le Ballet National de Marseille and Eliot Feld Ballet.
In a career of highlights, Kain considers two that occurred in the twilight of her career the most memorable. In 1994, her 25th anniversary year with NBC, she gave up Swan Lake, the last of the classical works in her repertoire. To sweeten the loss, Anthony Dowell, then artistic director of The Royal Ballet, agreed to give the company Ashton’s last masterpiece, A Month in the Country. Kain had coveted the role of Natalia Petrovna, a woman who falls in love with her son’s tutor, after seeing fellow Canadian Lynn Seymour perform it in 1976. The second gift was The Actress, Kudelka’s brilliant original work for Kain that details the life of an aging star and her complex relationship with her colleagues.
After leaving the stage, she became artist in residence with NBC, which, in the early stages, involved fundraising and liaison with patrons and the corporate elite. When her talents as an organizer and administrator became evident, the position was expanded to artistic associate and became part of the senior artistic staff, coaching dancers, staging ballets and advising Kudelka on casting and programming decisions.
“I loved learning the complexities of a large ballet company, particularly the administration side that a dancer rarely sees,” says Kain. “I never realized the details that go into mounting a ballet season, for example. In fact, it was during these last few years on senior staff that I began to think that I would like to become an artistic director.”