What will Karen Kain’s legacy be? To mark the Canadian ballet icon’s retirement and shift to the role of artistic director emeritus, The Globe and Mail spoke to some of the many people she worked with and inspired (from both near and afar) over her five decades at the National Ballet of Canada.
Aszure Barton, choreographer
For some reason, an image of a beautiful majestic sequoia comes to mind. When I was growing up, she was the shining star. Over the years, it’s been important for me to watch a woman lead, and with such integrity, strength, elegance, sensitivity, intelligence and steadfast commitment to the work. She’s empowered. It was a total pleasure to be commissioned to create for her company. Some of my most memorable, humbling and challenging creative moments were facilitated by Karen, and for this I am deeply grateful.
Robert Binet, choreographer
For so many Canadian artists, Karen made it clear that a life in the theatre was an option. I remember reading her autobiography as a little kid and while learning about her life, I also learned what kind of career in the arts might be possible and what I might need to do to get there. She created a blueprint for so many. Her impact on ballet more broadly, both as a dancer and an artistic director, is the way she has always centred the human experience. Her performances were known for their spontaneity and emotion, her programming has always been about telling fascinating human stories and her leadership has centred on creating conditions for artists to thrive.
Guillaume Côté, choreographer and principal dancer, National Ballet of Canada
Karen has a gift for making the work in the studio meaningful and important. Her extensive knowledge and acute taste have kept me driven and inspired in the best way possible for the last 20 years. Outside the studio, she’s been a great and generous friend who has given me the freedom to grow and find my own path.
Jurgita Dronina, principal dancer, National Ballet of Canada
Simply knowing that Karen was watching my performance was inspiring. I always felt understood, respected, encouraged and supported. I felt artistically challenged with the repertoire she brought to the company. Working on a different version of The Sleeping Beauty, for example, was both inspiring and rewarding as I was learning it directly from Karen herself. She is a big-I icon: Very few artists have had such a long-lasting impact on our art form in their lifetime as she has. Karen has repeatedly put Canada on the international ballet map, first when she was a star dancer and later as the artistic director. Her legacy and impact on ballet will be cherished forever.
Hope Muir, artistic director designate, National Ballet of Canada
Karen’s genuine support and interest in my career, whether as a stager, teacher or artistic director, was what always astounded me. Her kindness and openness to answer an e-mail or jump on a call is something I am so grateful for. I will continue to look forward to our conversations over the next few months and hope to live up to her incredible legacy.
Heather Ogden, principal dancer, National Ballet of Canada
Karen made ballet about being an artist. Her exceptional international career was instrumental in bringing a spotlight to ballet in Canada and making the world take notice. As an artistic director, I feel she has done the same. She was a dancer I idolized as a young girl, and I was star-struck joining the company at 17. I quickly realized how approachable and down to earth she was, and over the years our relationship has become very special to me. When we began to really work together, I found her very open to experimenting and exploring. I felt like she understood my hunger for perfection, but she always encouraged me to let go and just be free – it was a great feeling.
Grace Wells-Smith, Dance Current editor
It was a priority for her to make international touring a big part of the National Ballet’s work. They went to Russia for the first time with her; there was a big Paris tour. She was really committed to getting the ballet on the “world stage,” which she did. Canada was playing with the ballet bigwigs. She came into the company and gave it a major boost, even financially.
I interviewed former principal dancer Sonia Rodrigues, and she told me that Karen Kain was also really great for the female dancers in terms of wanting a life outside of the ballet, specifically when it came to having kids. Sonia told me this story about how people were nervous to tell the company if they got pregnant and then someone did – and Karen Kain was just so excited and so supportive of that, that four other girls also came forward and said they were pregnant. It sounds like she fostered a real work-life balance.
Clarke MacIntosh, Royal Academy of Dance’s national director in Canada
Karen Kain’s contribution to dance and the arts in Canada has been enormous, but her recognition as a dance icon extends beyond Canada’s borders. In 2019 the Royal Academy of Dance celebrated her remarkable career by awarding Karen our highest honour, the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award. She’s the first Canadian to receive this accolade, which expresses more than I can say in a few words about her reputation and influence worldwide.
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