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Harrison James, centre right, principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, joins fellow dancers during class in Toronto on Oct. 4, 2018.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The first time Karen Kain visited Russia, it was 1973 and the Soviet Union was facing major food shortages.

The Canadian ballet star needed sufficient sustenance, as she and Frank Augustyn were competing together in the International Ballet Competition in Moscow, and she remembers waiting in lineups at grocery stores for hours only to get such meagre offerings as a cucumber.

“There was nothing to eat,” Kain, artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, recalled in a recent interview. “I wasn’t very big at the time and I lost 15 pounds in two weeks there.”

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As the National Ballet of Canada prepares for its first-ever tour to Russia this month, Kain expects art to transcend politics like it did back then, when she and Augustyn ended up winning awards and met “a lot of wonderful people” who cared deeply about the craft.

National Ballet's artistic director Karen Kain, pictured in Toronto on Oct. 4, 2018, first visited Russia in 1973 to compete at a ballet competition in Moscow.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

She’s since returned several times, including a milestone 1977 performance the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, and come to realize: “You can’t judge a population by their politics — you judge them by the individuals that you have relationships with.”

“It’s a wonderful way to have the arts be a diplomatic gesture,” Kain said.

“I hope it’s emblematic of something greater and bigger than politics and the way countries are run. I hope it serves a higher purpose as well as being an amazing adventure for all of us.”

The company will perform at the Stanislavsky Theatre in Moscow (Oct. 15 and 16) and the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg (Oct. 19) as part of Diana Vishneva’s Context festival.

The National Ballet of Canada has never before visited Russia in its 67-year history simply because it hadn’t been invited, said Kain. “It’s also a very expensive endeavour” with challenging logistics, she added.

This new opportunity came about by way of an invitation from Vishneva, whose festival had the budget to bring them there. The visionary Russian ballerina started the Context festival five years ago as a means to add contemporary dance to a country that’s steeped in classic movement.

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“We are the largest company they’ve ever brought over the five years of their existence and we couldn’t go if we had to pay for this ourselves,” said Kain. “So I had to say yes, for many, many reasons.”

The company’s repertoire in Russia will be a mixed program of “Paz de la Jolla” by Justin Peck, “Being and Nothingness” by Guillaume Cote, and Crystal Pite’s “Emergence.”

National Ballet of Canada dancers practise during class on Oct. 4, 2018.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Kain said those titles are currently in their repertoire and provide a good overview of the kind of contemporary work the National Ballet of Canada is doing.

The dancers are “very excited,” Kain said, noting “it’s not that easy to come by these kinds of experiences anymore in the world we live in.”

She hopes the milestone tour will expand the company’s reputation and showcase the “brave works” they’re presenting and the calibre of their artists, “which are second-to-none.”

“I just want the rest of the world to know that the National Ballet of Canada is one of the best companies in the world — and if they don’t see you, they don’t know that,” Kain said.

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The schedule is tight and Kain doesn’t plan to meet with officials or anything outside of their tour. She’d rather “let the artform speak for itself.”

“I’m not going to go around shaking hands and hoping that I can change a political environment that I may or may not agree with,” Kain said.

“That’s not changeable. Only human spirits are changeable.”

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