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ANTHONY JENKINS/The Globe and Mail

Even during Nutcracker season, Karen Kain has faith Canadian audiences crave experimental and contemporary dance along with beloved holiday favourites. Here, the artistic director of the National Ballet shares some of the secrets to her success.

Don't go against the grain – forget it

There is the expression to go against the grain, but I guess I don't know what the grain is. When I am looking for new material, I see so much going on around the world and then I decide what I think will be interesting for my dancers and my public. I am not aspiring to be vastly different or to fit in, just to choose the most interesting, exciting work. People love Swan Lake and The Nutcracker and of course I love those, too, but dance is so much more than that. There is so much new and innovative and challenging work out there and I look at it as part of my job to bring these types of performances to audiences, whether that is in fashion or not.

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If you don't have chemistry, fake it

You can't expect to have chemistry with every partner you dance with, but you can expect professionalism and hard work. Dancers are professionals. It's not different from a Hollywood movie. A director will hope for chemistry between the actors, but if it's not there you fall back on the fact that these people are trained and should be able to work together to create the best chemistry they can. I know it sounds simple, but it helps to treat people you work with well. And of course to work your hardest and hope that even if the chemistry isn't there between the dancers that a sense of magic is there for the public – which is the most important part.

Don't let your gut get in the way of a valuable opinion

As an artist, you look for that hard-to-achieve balance between listening to the opinions of others and trusting your own gut. That's easy when the two things overlap, but that's not always the case. My best advice for young dancers is to listen. Listen to your partners, choreographers, coaches and teachers. Other people have a way of observing you in a way that you can't do yourself, so you listen, absorb what someone has said to you, and then decide what you want to do with the information. My instincts have served me very well, and I tend to listen to them very strongly, but it is always valuable to take in and consider the opinions of others. And then you can decide for yourself.

Be your own harshest critic

Dancing is a young person's domain, as is the case in any career that deals with the human body and its possibilities and its restrictions and aging. It was very difficult for me when the time came where I could no longer meet the standards that I had set for myself. I didn't love dancing any less. I was very fortunate in that choreographers continued to create work for me that suited the time of life and moving toward the end of my career. It made it easier to let go. It was never about what other people would think so much as knowing that I was no longer capable of meeting my own standards. I think having very high expectations for myself served me well then, and has continued to serve me well in this current chapter.

This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea

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