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Evolution at the National Ballet of Canada

A new director, a new home and a new energy at Canada's premier ballet company

It is a sign of these tough times for the arts that Montrealers have not seen much recently of the National Ballet of Canada (NBC), the largest and most acclaimed dance company in the country. This summer, though, a contingent of fifteen dancers from NBC will make their way from Toronto to the Festival des Arts de Saint-Sauveur. On view will be some of the National Ballet's finest dancers in a one-night-only show on August 11.

Times are a-changin' for this company, and for the better. This past June in Toronto, NBC tried out their new home-the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts-in a special gala performance that swept away earlier criticisms that the theatre was a visual dud. At the same time, their newest artistic director, the legendary Karen Kain (who took the reins from choreographer/director James Kudelka in July 2005) completed her first year as head of the company and nearly her second as chair of the Canada Council for the Arts.

"It truly feels like a new era," Kain told me when I visited Toronto last month, "It feels like we are getting a chance to move forward in the consciousness of our community, our province and our country-to build more support and expose more Canadians to the beauty of dance."

"It's a really exciting time," agreed principal dancer Greta Hodgkinson, "not just for the dancers but also for the audience because they are going to see a renewed company out there. We are going to finally be the company to watch again on an international level."

In the last couple of years, it is indeed at the international level-the United States, in particular-where the company hasn't fared so well. Performances this past January of Kudelka's Swan Lake at the Kennedy Center failed to impress Washington D.C. critics who did not appreciate the Canadian choreographer's revision of the old classic. Even worse were last year's decidedly negative responses from the city whose favour everyone wants to win-New York-to Kudelka's The Contract, the first NBC production there in seven years.

If that weren't enough, topping off these disappointments was the news a few months later of continuing deficits and declining audiences at home during the 2004-05 season. Some lay the blame on Kudelka for poor programming choices like the revival of The Contract. Still, the reason he gave for his resignation from the artistic directorship was to give himself more time to create new work.

Currently, Kudelka is resident choreographer of the company. Throughout his long association with NBC (nine of those years spent as artistic director), he facilitated the creation of more than thirty ballets for the company: many of those made by himself or by other Canadian choreographers. And, if leaving a significant body of work by homegrown choreographic talent was not enough, today there are dancers at the National Ballet who came up during his tenure and are now audience favourites. It's a legacy not to be ignored.

Kain, meanwhile, has been trying to put NBC's house in order. At the time of her appointment, that meant cutting some of the plans Kudelka had made for this past season. Looking ahead to the next-2006-07-Kain has not ignored the contributions of her predecessor (who choreographed roles for her when she was still dancing). Fittingly, she has chosen Kudelka's masterpiece The Four Seasons to close out next season in the venue which shares the work's name (New York City Ballet's Christopher Wheeldon and Canadian Matjash Mrozewski share the bill).

The season opener in November 2006, however, is a refurbished Sleeping Beauty, the spectacular 1972 production by Rudolf Nureyev that truly brought the company-and Kain-into the international spotlight for the first time. As for the rest of the year, audiences have their choice of ballets by some of the best choreographers of the last century: John Cranko (Taming of the Shrew), Glen Tetley (Voluntaries), Kenneth MacMillan (Song of the Earth), Jerome Robbins (Opus 19/The Dreamer), George Balanchine (Symphony in C & Don Quixote) and Eliot Feld (A Footstep of Air). It's a programme containing none of the new, large-scale original works that have featured in seasons past (unless you count Balanchine's Don Quixote, a co-production with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet that was revived last year in DC). Still, it's a season that gives the company's dancers a decent range of opportunities.

In fact, a (slight) change is in the air. The days of NBC being a company with an emphasis on creation, as they were under Kudelka, seem to be over for the moment. Under Kain, the focus seems to be shifting instead towards the quality of the dancing itself, as well as the company's heritage.

"I think [Kain] wants to re-establish the company as one of the great classical ballet companies in the world," says principal dancer Guillaume Côté enthusiastically. "It's going to be focused on our history ... [for instance] ballets like Song of the Earth that haven't been touched in so long."

Hodgkinson emphasizes the more intimate side of having a former dancer as a director, as opposed to an active choreographer: "Karen is coming in with the experience of being in our shoes. She has an enormous amount of empathy for the dancers. She just understands where we are coming from. She's been there. She's had that whole career."

A "whole career" indeed-Kain's dancing days span a breathtaking twenty-eight years. Apart from guest engagements, she danced throughout that period with the NBC, partaking in its rich repertoire which expanded along with her development as an artist. After Kain retired from the National Ballet of Canada in 1997, the following year she was invited by Kudelka to be "artist-in-residence" and was later made "artistic associate" while serving as a member of the senior management. It's not hard to feel that, if anyone understands the company's artistic mission, it would be Kain. And for her, that means the National Ballet should be able to do both the classics and the newest choreography with equal mastery.

That isn't the case everywhere. Consider the transformation of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, which no longer performs the classics. If "revolution" is the word that has been applied (by an ecstatic New York Times) to Gradimir Pankov's cutting-edge direction at Les Grands, "evolution" is the word that seems to suit both Karen Kain and the National Ballet of Canada.

For this director, NBC must continue to be versatile and forward-looking while remaining true to being a "ballet" company. "I think the key is to keep that balance," says Kain, "because, let's face it, there are hardly any companies left in the world that can do the classics well-very few" and she doesn't want the National Ballet to lose that ability. At the same time, she argues, dance must "keep moving forward." Kain recognizes that many young dancers relish the challenge of new choreography (some of which can, for a change of pace, involve bare feet or boots instead of pointe shoes) and she hopes to provide those opportunities.

Bringing in some of today's most important choreographers both from Canada and abroad (like William Forsythe and John Neumeier) is on her agenda too. She wants first-rate choreographic talent to work with her dancers so that "when they are at my stage in their lives, they can look back on their career and think about all the great influences they had."

So, just how well is the National doing under her direction? On the financial front, the numbers for 2005-06 are not out yet, but hopefully Kain's cuts to the season Kudelka had already planned will have eased the burden and the popular ballets which remained, like Romeo and Juliet, sold well enough. Artistically, it is also too early to tell. Perhaps not until the end of the upcoming season will anyone have much of an idea-it takes a while before all of a director's decisions, from repertoire planning to hiring to casting to coaching, come to fruition.

One thing is sure, though-a lot of hopes rest on those slender, if steely, shoulders. Fifty-five year-old Kain may still be regarded by many to be "Canada's sweetheart," but she is known as a driven perfectionist and, as Côté puts it, "One of the smartest women I know." Let's hope so, both for this treasure of a company and for all the artists she serves through the Canada Council for the Arts.

For more of Karen Kain's thoughts about the National Ballet of Canada and the Canada Council for the Arts, please click here.

For more about National Ballet of Canada principal dancers, Guillaume Côté, Greta Hodgkinson, and Heather Ogden, please click here.

The St. Sauveur Arts Festival runs August 3-12.

The Gala des Étoiles takes place September 7 at Place des Arts.

The National Ballet of Canada begins anew in the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts with The Sleeping Beauty, Nov. 9-18.