National Treasure

New Artistic Director Karen Kain continues the legacy of the National Ballet of Canada.
Published in the October/November 2005 issue.

Principal dancer Heather Ogden remembers being called into the studio in May with her colleagues and hearing the announcement that James Kudelka would step down as artistic director on June 30, 2005. “We were stunned that James was leaving,” she recalls, “but almost immediately, everyone was speculating that Karen Kain would be his successor. She had clearly been groomed for the job and was certainly the popular choice. She also understands how this company works, from the bottom to the top, which is a big advantage.”

In fact, Kain was identified as the top candidate for the job long before she was offered the position. “Like many corporations, NBC had in place a written succession plan for senior leadership of the company,” explains David Banks, chair of the board of directors. “The plan singled out potential candidates and was designed to help the formal work of a selection committee, should the need arise. Karen headed the list as possible artistic director. After James’ resignation, we had to decide whether we should conduct a proper search or appoint Karen.”

Jim Pitblado, a past chair of both the NBC board and foundation, was given charge of the succession planning committee. During an intense three-week period, he and his four colleagues conducted a wide-ranging survey of NBC stakeholders, both inside and outside the company, in Canada and abroad.

“Karen’s name kept coming up,” he says. “What really surprised us is that no negative facts of any consequence were mentioned about her. You’d think that over a 30-year career, she might have rubbed someone the wrong way, but not Karen.”

In her former life, Kain had a glittering career as NBC’s prima ballerina and was an international ballet superstar. Penelope Doob, who is head of the dance department at York University and helped Kain write her autobiography, Movement Never Lies, points to the former ballerina as one of the most beloved and recognized cultural icons in Canada, a rare tribute for dance in the starry climes usually reserved for sports figures or rock stars.

After retiring as a dancer, Kain became an artist in residence with NBC in 1997. Two years later, she became artistic associate, which made her an integral part of the top managerial team. Nonetheless, she did not find out until after the fact that she had been identified as the top candidate to succeed Kudelka.

Equally surprising is that she never saw her job as artistic associate as an apprenticeship. Rather, she viewed herself as being part of Kudelka’s support team. It was not until quite recently that she realized these last eight years were on-the-job training for artistic director and began to see herself in that role. Now she is taking on one of the most challenging cultural jobs in Canada.

For her part, Kain is in no hurry to put her own stamp on NBC. “I have a huge respect for the company’s heritage, and I plan to build on that,” she says. “I served under every artistic director, and I appreciate what each brought to the company. The mandate that founder Celia Franca put in place is still valid. Our benchmark is the classical repertory, support for Canadian choreographers and bringing in masterworks of our time.”

But the change in command comes at a difficult time for the company, which has been suffering financially. Kain is reluctant to give a precise number concerning box-office losses, but the 2004-05 season was not a good one for NBC. She uses the word “challenging” to describe the audience drop-off and adds that necessity dictates that she proceed with caution her first few years. “We always budget very conservatively and never plan for full houses, but we’re nervous right now over this nasty surprise and really have to analyze what happened. Are we moving too fast with unfamiliar work? Is the audience drop-off specific to us or to all dance companies? Sadly, people who came to the shows loved them, but not enough of them came. If you asked me to sum up my vision, it is survival.”

Kain is pinning some hopes for renewal on the move to Toronto’s new opera house, the Four Seasons Centre for the Arts, in September 2006. She talks glowingly about the closeness of the stage to the audience, even at the back of the hall. “The European horseshoe shape goes up rather than out,” she explains, “so there are very few bad seats and wonderful acoustics. Everyone can experience the immediate and visceral passion of dance. I hope the new opera house will seduce people into the theater and that we will delight them or even surprise them when they are there.”

The move to the new house will be costly, though, primarily because the company will need more dancers to accommodate the increased number of performances. Currently the company has 60 dancers, including apprentices, but the ideal is 70. Thus, in a time of audience malaise and donor fatigue, the new director has to find the resources for the necessary company growth.

Enlarging the endowment may be one answer. NBC’s endowment is about $11 million, but in comparison to a few U.S. companies with endowments in the tens of millions, this is pitifully small. Part of the problem, according to Kain, is that American businesses and individuals get a complete tax write-off for their donations. In Canada, it is only a 50 percent tax benefit. “We have to convince governments to be smarter about donations to not-for-profit arts organizations to encourage philanthropy,” says Kain.

Since the recession of the late 1980s, NBC has never had, Pitblado points out, “a year of fat on the bones.” Thus, in the current rough times of government funding cutbacks and the fierce competition for corporate dollars, being artistic director of NBC is not without its pitfalls. All see Kain, however, as having the goods to take on the job, and there is, apparently, a steel magnolia that lurks within her charm.

In fact, the word that comes up most frequently to describe her personality is “tough.” NBC principal dancer Jennifer Fournier sees Kain as someone who cares passionately about what happens on the stage. “She is brutally honest and a person who does not settle for mediocrity. You can’t get to the top of the dance world without handling the truth, and that will carry over to her decisions as an artistic director.”

At the same time, Fournier feels that Kain’s greatest strength is her open-door, nurturing attitude. “Karen is very intelligent and emotionally in tune with how things impact dancers,” she adds. “She is also open to new ideas. She never stopped growing as an artist, and she won’t stop growing as an administrator.”

Kain points out that NBC is not a company she is stepping into as part of a career move, but one that she has been a part of her entire professional life. Acting as artistic director will be a labor of love. Nonetheless, she is not rubber-stamping what has gone before, and one picks up a flash of steel when she talks about
raising standards. “When I’m watching from the audience, it is with the eyes of someone who has seen the best in the major dance centers of the world,” Kain says. “Sometimes we are there, and sometimes not. I want us at the top of our game for every performance. I’m ready to take on the challenge.”


Paula Citron is a Toronto-based arts journalist.