Although Karen Kain is undoubtedly a noted Canadian, there would be no reason for her to suspect that a large framed photograph of her hangs in a dowdy hallway of the General Wolfe Inn, a modest lodging a ferry-ride away from Kingston that has withstood decades of winds, winters and any impulses to be redecorated.
Reaching the top of the stairs while on a recent stay there, I was greeted by the image of the legendary former ballerina in her tutu-and-tippy-toes prime. There is only one other star in the hotel’s unexpected hall of fame: The model Twiggy, a Swinging Sixties pop-culture icon.
“Wow,” Kain says, upon hearing of her pride of place. “I’m in good company.”
And in rare company. How many dancers can you name? How many ballerinas got their portrait done by Warhol or appeared in an episode of The Littlest Hobo? That Kain has seeped into the Canadian consciousness or onto the walls of the quirkiest corners of the country speaks to her dominating presence, outlandish charisma and extra-elite talent.
In recognition of her 50 years with the National Ballet of Canada – first as a dancer and, since 2005, artistic director – Kain is set to receive the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award, an honour presented by the Royal Academy of Dance. On Aug. 29, Kain, 68, will be the first Canadian ever bestowed the award.
Previous recipients include Rudolf Nureyev, who along with Kain and Mikhail Baryshnikov, transcended the ballet world. She, the Russians and a certain groovy Canadian prime minister were rock stars of the pirouetting kind.
“It was serendipity,” says Kain, speaking from her office at the National about her elevated status. “I had been with the company a few years when suddenly Nureyev came into our midst."
After defecting from the Soviet Union, Nureyev worked with prominent Western troupes, including the National Ballet. In 1973, Kain debuted in the role of Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty with Nureyev, thus beginning their dance partnership. “I was in the right place at the right time,” Kain says. "He was a mega superstar and we were going to be working with him. He put us on the international map.”
As artistic director, it is Kain’s job to keep the company on that international map and to give young dancers the opportunities she once enjoyed as a performer herself. “I just try to bring in the brightest and the best influences,” Kain says. “I see the best all the time and I’ve worked with the best. And do you know what? The National Ballet of Canada is right up there.”
In good company, one might say. And in no small part owing to the efforts of Kain.
In honour of Ms. Kain’s 50-year association with the National Ballet of Canada, The Globe and Mail spoke to people who have worked closely with her over the years.
Frank Augustyn, National Ballet principal dancer from 1972 to 1989
First impression: I first saw Karen in the hallway of the National Ballet School. All I remember is seeing these bigger teeth. And bigger braces. Later, with the company, she was chosen to dance in The Mirror Walkers by Peter Wright. There was something special about her – an enormously gifted person. [National Ballet founder] Celia Franca saw it. We all did.
The mark she left on me: During a tour of Eastern Canada in the 1970s, Karen and I did performance of Giselle in Fredericton. At the end, we received huge and loud applause. When the ballet master and ballet mistress came backstage, they were crying. Usually they have corrections, but not this time. Just tears. Karen and I didn’t know what happened. It was precise and felt so effortless. It was then that I realized that I should try to achieve that every time – that every performance should be like this. Of course, it happened very infrequently, maybe three times in my career. But it was so magical. It seemed as if you didn’t even do it.
In three words: Karen is charismatic, passionate and loyal.
Sabrina Matthews, ballet choreographer
First impression: I went to the National Ballet School of Canada from 1987 to 1995. As students, we took part in the annual productions of The Nutcracker. I was lucky enough to become Clara, which meant Karen was my Sugar Plum Fairy. It’s every little girl’s dream, and she was just as captivating up close in the rehearsal studio as she was on stage.
Her dancing: She had an incredible acting ability. You couldn’t stop watching her. Not a lot of dancers have that. When you saw her dance The Merry Widow, you believed she was her.
David Drum, friend and former National Ballet chiropractor
Favourite memory: We lived right next door to each other in Toronto’s Cabbagetown. We were having trouble with our places being broken into, so we both bought German shepherd guard dogs. The funny thing was that the people who broke in after that stole both our dogs. They didn’t take anything else.
Her dancing: It wasn’t just Karen’s technique and physical beauty. She was soulful. She gave herself to the role. It was magic when she danced.
Her help: I had invented a foot roller. For nothing, she would come to trade shows and demonstrate it. She was wonderfully supportive. She fed me a lot, too.
Marjory Fielding, recently retired National Ballet wardrobe supervisor of 24 years
First impression: Karen was already an icon when I met her in 1991. I was assisting on a new version of The Taming of the Shew, and there was a photo call. There are still posters of it around. Karen has her fists up, looking quite pugnacious. It was just a laugh. But I think that fighting spirit is in her. It’s just cloaked in velvet.
In three words: She’s beautiful, gracious and a pleasure to work with.
Cylla von Tiedemann, performing-arts photographer
First impression: I took the photographs for the company’s yearbook, I believe in 1992. I had a lot of naked backs – everybody was naked and Karen was in a beautiful outfit. She made you feel like a peer. She was humble, and willing to play along and work with my crazy ideas.
The mark she left on me: There was a tenacity about her. Yes, an elegance, but also perfectionism. She was willing to do poses over and over, even if that meant she would have to work longer. She understood the creative process, and she taught me a lot about it. To keep at until it’s perfect.
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