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 …

KK: I think that the thing is that it can be so many things … because sometimes some of the most delicate, what might be considered old-fashioned, precious works are just as beautiful in their simplicity as these new works that incorporate technology and new music and everything else. There are so many ways for it to be wonderful. It can be dark, it can be light, it can be dramatic, it can be just beautiful for beauty’s sake, it can be touching, it can be poignant – there’s an endless number of adjectives. It can be awful. I love that ballet is not just what people might think it is with The Nutcracker. Although our Nutcracker is pretty splendid.

I don’t really know what [ballet in the 21st century] holds. I think that’s one of the exciting things about this art form is that every person who I invite to work with us comes up with things that we didn’t imagine. It’s endless possibilities and each generation comes with new ideas and new ways of doing things and new approaches and yet still wanting to use the incredible facility of these highly trained, highly accomplished artists.

Whether or not she ever imagined she’d be in the position she’s in with the company…

KK: Not for a second. No. Never. All I ever wanted to do was dance. Nothing else existed for me except trying to be able to do my next performance better than the last one.

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.

After performing professionally into her 40s, Kain’s tips for others looking to stay fit…

KK: Well I wouldn’t recommend doing ballet into your mid-40s. It’s a very painful experience. [Laughs] I would say that you need to keep your muscles strong. It can be ballet just for fun because certainly ballet exercises can be very beneficial for strengthening your legs and your back. Things like Pilates I particularly like if you have a good teacher because you can get strong without hurting yourself. Sometimes I’ve seen sort of yoga things that I think are quite dangerous if people aren’t already really fit. Anyway, everybody has their particular physical issues that they have to know their body well and know what works for it. If you have bad knees or bad ankles or whatever, you have to pay attention to how you’re built and what’s best for you so you can strengthen yourself accordingly. And just, you know, walking and being physical. I think we all feel better – our bodies need to move.

I believe that one of the hardest things about being on [the business side of ballet] is sitting in meetings. I just hate sitting in meetings. I’d rather go for a walk with somebody and talk about stuff. I just think any kind of physical activity – even if you walk around your block a few times everyday is just the best. I guess I was really spoiled to have such physical activity built into my life everyday. It was too much physical activity [Laughs] but it was a lot better than just sitting in meetings.

The Sleeping Beauty runs from June 10-20 at the National Ballet of Canada. For more information, visit