Karen Kain checks her reflection in the vanity table. She puts on a pair of earrings as the finishing touch to her off-the-shoulder crimson velvet gown, and then strides purposefully across a stage.
The moment could be a behind-the-scenes snippet from this series of photos, Kain’s first fashion shoot in as long as she can remember. But it’s actually a scene from The Actress, the piece that choreographer James Kudelka created especially for her nearly 25 years ago. That performance drew the curtain on her quarter-century as a dancer with the National Ballet of Canada.
Since then, the Ancaster, Ont.-born lyrical dancer has had a stellar second act. Kain, now 69, has led the National Ballet as its artistic director since 2005. Her tenure was to come to a close at the end of the year with an equally dramatic finale: Kain’s own original staging of Swan Lake with completely new sets and costumes commissioned from multidisciplinary designer Gabriela Tylesova. As a result of COVID-19, the company’s June season was cancelled in early April and Kain’s Swan Lake has been rescheduled for June 2021.
Kain describes the production’s wardrobe as delicate and almost transparent with a couture quality. “It’s going to be exceedingly beautiful,” she says. Clothes – and specifically, costume – have naturally played a role in Kain’s career since she joined the ballet in 1969 as a dancer in the corps. While her final year with the company will no doubt include many tributes that reflect on her artistic contributions to the cultural life of Canada, Kain’s encounters with the world of high fashion also provide a unique perspective on her creative impact.
In 1973, Kain and her dance partner Frank Augustyn performed the Bluebird pas-de-deux from The Sleeping Beauty during the Moscow International Ballet Competition. They arrived in the U.S.S.R. just in time for the show. The costumes that awaited them, crafted of opulent brocade and accented with feathered headdresses, helped inspire a star-making performance.
“When we ran out on stage to start, the entire Bolshoi theatre gasped at the costumes,” Kain says. “Like, in a wonderful way – this intake of breath. It really helped with confidence in that moment. You always want to feel that you look beautiful in a ballet like that.”
Costumes aren’t just a way to enhance the onstage illusion for the audience. “It’s all part of my imagination in terms of helping me become that character,” says Kain. Her on-stage wardrobe has been as diverse as the repertoire, ranging from the lamé, tulle and jet confections of the belle époque Manon, to the louche trench coat and cloche hat in Mad Shadows, to the painted trompe l’oeil unitard of ragtime ballet Elite Syncopations. “I love it all,” she says. “If it suits the material and makes me go to some imaginary place that I can enjoy, it works for me.”
Fashion is a logical ally for promoting the grace and artistry found on the dance stage. Dancers were, after all, among the first modern celebrities and chronicling their fashion choices (Isadora Duncan draped in avant-garde Fortuny; Anna Pavlova’s chiffon tea dresses by Lucile; Christian Dior’s net gowns encrusted with sequins for Margot Fonteyn) helped cultivate a fascination with the artists in the popular imagination. To promote her appearance as a guest artist with the Paris Opéra Ballet in the mid-1970s, Kain once gamely posed in a diaphanous caftan at a grand apartment for the magazine Paris Match. At the same time, British Vogue featured a fashion portrait of Kain wearing an ethereal printed chiffon dress delicately edged in beads by Jean Muir to promote the National Ballet’s English tour.
“I was just in a fantasy world being dressed by these people and having a great time. They do your makeup, they do your hair, all you have to do is follow directions,” Kain says, remembering a session modelling for London society photographer David Montgomery. “And we’re very good at that, as dancers.”
The 1970s bohemian styles of designers such as Muir, Biba and Zandra Rhodes embodied a cultural shift that included a more free-spirited approach to fashion, and that sense of ease was also reflected in the dance world’s off-duty look. The Ballet Theatre of Harlem principal Virginia Johnson became a devotee of Halston’s slinky minimalism, and a new generation of dancers were photographed in equally effortless jersey wrap dresses, shawls and cozy sweater-coats. Profiles of Kain and fellow principal dancer Veronica Tennant from the time often dissected their pragmatic tour wardrobe.
“I love beautiful clothes but I got to wear so many beautiful costumes that I didn’t feel I needed to be so fancy in real life,” says Kain. “I was always pretty simple.”
“[Costume] is all part of creating a character and if you believe in the character then you know how to walk, how to move, what your expression is – it’s just a key to characterization for me,” she says. “In everyday life, I just want to be Karen, and Karen is not very flamboyant, frankly.”
A rare moment of flash came in 1995 when Kain took to the same runway as drag queen RuPaul for a suburbia-themed Fashion Cares catwalk show benefitting the AIDS Committee of Toronto. She camped it up in a precarious pair of platforms channelling the character Peggy Bundy from the sitcom Married, with Children. She has also commissioned Canadian designers such as Jason Wu, Thomas Tait and Erdem Moralioglu to create costumes for new works showcased at the National Ballet’s more recent annual gala performances.
While working as a principal dancer, Kain favoured homegrown designers such as Zapata, Wayne Clark and Maggy Reeves for her off-stage engagements. She still wears the tailored Alfred Sung classics she’s held onto for years. These days, as a businesswoman in a creative field, Kain’s everyday repertoire consists of understated separates from labels such as Italian cashmere brand Marlowe, accessorized with the vintage Bakelite bangles she collects.
“I’m really an introvert and only an extrovert when I’m performing,” Kain says. “I tend to not be drawing attention to myself unless it’s appropriate.” Now that the days of expressive stage costumes are behind her, however, Kain still seizes on moments of escapist glamour, such as the ballet’s galas, where she’s on display if not on stage. “Then, I just love to get all dressed up and have a fantasy dress.”