The reign of Kain

Performing the most precarious dance of her career, Canada’s ballet queen taps Nureyev, Jagger, Chekhov—and Harper


In the early 1970s, Rudolf Nureyev and Mick Jagger were two of the most iconic performers on the planet, twins in androgyny from different worlds, and Karen Kain was a young ballerina. She will never forget the night she joined Nureyev for dinner at a club in Paris and found herself seated between the Russian dancer and “the largest pair of lips I’d ever seen.” Jagger “was quite inebriated,” she recalls, “and he was all over me. I think anyone who sat next to him, male or female, would have had the same treatment. He wanted to get me on the dance floor with him, but I’d been dancing for eight hours that day, so I didn’t. He wanted me to come home with him, and do all sorts of other things, and I didn’t. I was a very serious young person.”

More than three decades later, as artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, Kain has tapped the mystique of both Nureyev and Jagger. In 2006 she opened the inaugural season at Toronto’s new opera house with a refurbished version of Nureyev’s The Sleeping Beauty, which the Soviet defector created for the National Ballet in 1972. Nureyev, who made Kain a star, has been dead for 15 years, but with a princely kiss from the grave he helped her revive her company’s slumbering box office. Then, the next season, shocking ballet purists, she presented Rooster, a burlesque piece inspired by Jagger and set to the music of the Rolling Stones.

Well, that got my attention. As someone unversed in ballet, but excessively familiar with the Stones, I was intrigued by the notion of marrying classical dance and classic rock. Ballerinas swooning to Sympathy for the Devil? Twirling to Ruby Tuesday? What would that look like? So one night last March, I fought my way through the winter’s biggest snowfall to the opera house. Rooster, from British choreographer Christopher Bruce, turned out to be a breezy send-up of Jagger’s sexual posturing set to early Stones songs. But it fell short of Mick’s own surgical self-parody, and failed to harness the music’s dark energy.

What really rocked the opera house that evening was the piece that opened the bill—24 Preludes by Chopin from Montreal choreographer Marie Chouinard. This walk on the wild side of modern dance made Rooster seem tame by comparison. Crowned with spiky mohawks, the dancers performed virtually naked, the women sheathed in mesh leotards with strips of black tape masking strategic areas. Bodies merged and separated in an amoeba flux of movement, Zen brush strokes in a calligraphy of desire and frustration.

I had no idea ballet could look like this. Which made me typical of the new audience Kain has been trying to hook. She pulls them in with a pop confection like Rooster, or last season’s West Side Story, then knocks them dead with something fabulous they never knew existed. It’s as old as bait-and-switch, but it seems to be working. “I wanted the Stones thing so people would come,” says Kain. “If I advertised 24 Preludes, I wouldn’t have sold a ticket. I’m looking for people who haven’t given ballet a try. If I can’t get them in the door, what kind of future are we going to have? And if it takes Stones music to get them to take a look . . .”

Sitting in her corner office at the National Ballet’s headquarters on the Toronto waterfront, Kain has a hacking cough that she’s been unable to shake. It’s been a stressful time. Her father has just died. Kain no longer dances and rarely exercises, aside from the odd Pilates class. But she still holds herself with the erect carriage of a prima ballerina. And as she describes the thrill of watching her dancers perform, her almond eyes occasionally flash with the radiance that made her such an electrifying presence onstage. “I watch their shows and I can never relax,” she says, like an anxious hockey mom. “The first two years, the show would finish and the amount of tension in my muscles was as much as if I had been performing. I’m constantly trying to keep my emotions in check. I don’t think my temperament is cut out to be a manager in an executive position.”

But she’s doing a remarkable job. Kain, 57, who launches her fourth season as artistic director of the National Ballet on Nov. 5, is proving to be as dynamic a force backstage as she was in the spotlight. She was by far the most celebrated ballet dancer this country has produced. Her rise to stardom in the ’70s coincided with a golden age of dance, when ballet was galvanized by the cloak-and-dagger drama of Soviet defection, and names like Nureyev and Baryshnikov had rock star allure. But those days are gone. While opera revels in a pop renaissance, dance is struggling to expand its audience while preserving its integrity. “Ballet is going through an identity crisis,” says Michael Crabb, the National Post’s veteran dance critic. “Karen is doing very well in a difficult environment.”

Raising revenues to meet the challenge of the new opera house, Kain has reinvigorated the company by hiring some superb dancers and courting the world’s top choreographers. She is also assembling one of the most diverse repertoires in the company’s history. “She’s been very shrewd in her choices,” says Crabb. “Some of her programming has, in the best sense of the word, been opportunistic. But she’s a real stickler for standards.”

The new season runs the gamut, from the breathless contemporary exuberance of In the Upper Room, a Twyla Tharp piece sprung with the quicksilver fugues of Philip Glass, to the ambitious narrative of John Neumeier’s The Seagull, a Chekov adaptation that vaults between avant-garde expression and ironic homage to Russian imperial ballet. Other highlights include a multimedia piece based on poetry from Anne Michaels’s Skin Divers, a sexed-up Carmen, a trio of world premieres by Canadian choreographers, and—as if to reaffirm that classical rigour is the backbone of the whole business—anchoring this eclectic mix are three warhorses: Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, and of course The Nutcracker.

Kain’s financial challenges are at least as daunting as the creative ones. She inherited a $1.1-million deficit from her predecessor, James Kudelka, who served as artistic director for nine years. Over the past three seasons, she has whittled it to zero, and this year posted a slim surplus. Meanwhile, there’s been a $6- million boost in annual revenues, to $27 million—via $2 million in new fundraising and a $4-million spike at the box office, which came largely from steeper ticket prices and an expanded performance calendar.

Kudelka, unlike Kain, is a choreographer, and as artistic director he was focused on creating original works for his dancers. But by the time he quit, the company had become introverted and was losing its audience. “There was some bleeding going on when I came in,” says Kain. “It was starting to be not interesting to a lot of people, so I needed to stimulate it somehow. I could only do what stimulated me, and that was to bring in more international influences and stir it up a little.”

Kudelka was never happy running the company, she adds. “James hated the job so much. He hated everything about it.” After retiring from the stage in 1997, Kain worked under Kudelka for eight years, learning the managerial ropes. But as an ex-ballerina, rather than a choreographer, she has a more empathetic rapport with the dancers—whether they’re injured, pregnant or breaking up with each other. (“You can tell when something’s going on because they’re weeping in corners.”) When a principal dancer balked at the near-nudity in 24 Preludes, Kain told her, “I respect that—you don’t have to be in it.” When dancer Bridgett Zehr was recruited from the Houston Ballet, she says, “I sensed I could trust Karen and she would take care of me”—which was confirmed when Zehr had to undergo foot surgery. Zdenek Konvalina, another hot new recruit, says, “she directly understands me as a dancer and is not judging how I would
look in her choreography.”

Partly because she’s not a rival, Kain has attracted star choreographers like Christopher Weeldon (Polyphonia) and Neumeier, who has worked with Kain since 1972. “Karen always had a sense of balance,” says Neumeier. “She was never envious. There was an obvious ambition, but it did not prevent her from looking left and right at her colleagues.”

That generosity has matured into a diplomatic mission for Kain, who has become the first lady of Canadian cultural politics in the performing arts. She served as chair of the Canada Council from 2004-2008, and during the election campaign, she was an outspoken critic of Stephen Harper’s cuts to arts funding. “I irritated some of my board members by doing that,” she says. “But those of us lucky enough to be in a position of influence have a responsibility to stand up. Arts were actually on the agenda in an election. That was amazing!”

Despite her apparent poise, Kain says she’s uncomfortable speaking in public. “I have to steel myself. I’m not a natural performer. It took my whole career to get over stage fright. I remember waiting in the wings to go on for my first entrance in Sleeping Beauty at the Metropolitan Opera [in 1975]. It’s New York, I’m dancing with Nureyev, and it seems like the most important thing on the planet. So I think about the headlines I’ve seen that day. Wars are going on, people are starving. It was a game I played with myself to calm down and get some perspective.”

Now she gets backstage fright as she attempts a new dance—a balancing act of trying to please the crowd and challenge her dancers while keeping the company aloft in a dire economy. “You’re supposed to be more rational when you’re a manager,” she sighs. “But when you love something this much and you care about every one of those dancers, and how much people like, or don’t like, each show, it’s a constant roller coaster ride.”

She may have hung up her ballet slippers, but Karen Kain is still on pointe.