Between the Lines … with Karen Kain
Canada’s prima ballerina, talking Rudolf Nureyev and The Sleeping Beauty
Canada’s prima ballerina, Karen Kain, has spent the last 10 years helping to revitalise the same ballet company she made her name with as a dancer decades earlier. In June, she marks both her 10th anniversary as artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada (NBC) while also staging a Rudolf Nureyev’s classic The Sleeping Beauty, which helped launch her career in the early 1970s. Kain spoke with Mike Crisolago about working with Nureyev and her tenure in the boardrooms of the National Ballet.
Pinpointing both her greatest challenge and greatest success as NBC artistic director …
KAREN KAIN: Greatest challenge? I think trying to do the job with the eye of an artist but still … learning to have the eye of an administrative person but actually it not being my forte or my passion. But understanding that it was a necessity and actually starting the job. I understand how it supports the organization and the art form and I am more respectful and I do have a deeper understanding of it. I think I resisted that because as an artist I resented bureaucracy or paperwork. [Laughs] For me it didn’t go to the centre of what we did or why we danced, why we were performing artists. And it took me a while to get over that.
I think that I love all facets of the art form of ballet, or of dance, and I try to program that. So I’m proud of that. I’m proud that [the NBC] seems to have found a public that can love The Sleeping Beauty and then love … any of the wonderful choreographers that of come to work with us. I’m proud of the calibre of the dancers and the calibre of the repertoire, I’m proud of the fact that we’re getting back out on the world stage. I’m proud of developing young Canadian choreographers like Robert Binet and Guillaume Cote, who’s a great artist who has become a choreographer as well. There’s a lot of things that I’m proud of.
Her vision of 21st century ballet …
Reflections on The Sleeping Beauty, and working with Rudolf Nureyev…
KK: The Sleeping Beauty, of course, is really close to my heart because it was the production that came into the National Ballet’s repertoire in 1972 and I was very young and I was sort of singled out by Rudolf Nureyev. He loved all the dancers in the company but he picked some of the younger talents and really gave them a huge push. It was myself and Frank Augustyn particularly, but he was appreciate and supportive of all the principals who were dancing in the company. That was a huge break for me, to have his support. He encouraged me enormously and he believed in me and I didn’t really have much self-confidence at that time. So he kind of really launched me in a way. So Sleeping Beauty was the first time we had ever worked with him or met him and he staged it here and for all of us it was an extraordinary time to be in the presence of this talent. He just burned like fire all the time. I suppose somewhere he knew he didn’t have long to live – I don’t know, but it was a really bright flame. So this is a man who just inspired us all to push ourselves. We would do anything for him. That was when we started touring and going to the Metropolitan Opera House every summer. That was the last time the National Ballet of Canada had a huge international reputation. It was mainly because of our association with him, but everyone discovered the company and thought it was a really great company. Only they had just come to see him. So this production holds a lot of memory and sentiment.
And also, by the Nureyev Trust I’ve been given the right to stage it. I oversee the quality of the production. We’re one of the few companies left in the world that are doing this particular production of Sleeping Beauty. I believe it’s challenging for the dancers and I think it’s stunningly beautiful to look at and, of course, it has the incredible music.
Does she ever get the urge to dust off her ballet shoes for one last dance?
KK: No. I think the reality is pretty clear to me. [Laughs] All I have to do is try to do Pilates a few times and realize imagining dancing is way beyond me now. I get in the studio and I try to find words for things that I used to just feel. And that’s fine. It helps sometimes [and] it is an interesting exercise to try to articulate what were your feelings when you danced something and it’s so long ago. Just how you found co-ordination and how it tied into the music and all those things. I’m kind of in the middle of that right now because we’re putting Sleeping Beauty back together for June and there’s new people learning it. I don’t ever imagine dancing again. My joints are pretty beat up and it would be way too painful. [Laughs] My spirit still dances but the rest of me – no.