Register Thursday | March 22 | 2018

Karen Kain gets Candid

A conversation with Karen Kain on “the Dance Boom” era and the challenges facing the National Ballet of Canada and the Canada Council for the Arts

It's been quite a year for Karen Kain. This summer she finished her first year as artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada (NBC). And, if managing the largest dance company in this country wasn't enough, for the past two years, Kain has also been acting as caretaker of another important national institution-the Canada Council for the Arts.

Without doubt, both of her charges have met significant challenges this past year. At the National Ballet of Canada, Kain has had to cope with a deficit and shrinking box office returns inherited from the term of her predecessor, James Kudelka. Meanwhile, over at the Canada Council, the story was not much different, the theme being "lack of funds." Despite a Liberal party promise to increase Canada Council funding by $150 million, and a reminder delivered by Kain during the election, the Conservative Party cut the government's promise down to $50 million.

It's a all a shame because, for example, the National Ballet does not get to tour as much as audiences outside Toronto would like. And as far as the Canada Council is concerned, the institution, as she says, touches the lives of Canadians coast to coast. (This very magazine, for one, has received grants from the organization). And yet, so many simply "do not know" the magnitude of what this government institution does for both the cultural and economic life of their communities.

In recognition of the Canada Council's upcoming fiftieth anniversary in 2007 and the National Ballet of Canada's "new era," I recently went down to Toronto to get Kain's thoughts on these subjects and more.

What was it like being a top ballerina during the "Dance Boom" of the 1970s when popular interest in dance thrived, and what has happened to dancers since?

I had the good fortune to be dancing at that time. Of course, we all thought this was the way it was always going to be-you don't know any different. I thought there was always going to be this incredible interest and activity in the dance community. There still is a lot of activity, it's just that the interest [has dropped off] ... I keep telling myself-and maybe it's just a way to make myself feel better-that [interest] is cyclical. I remember when the opera was not so popular in North America while dance was really popular. There was the influx of the Russians defecting, which added up to a romance and mystery that we don't have anymore. But that doesn't explain it all. I'm hoping it's cyclical. I'm hoping, but we've been waiting a long time.

What was great about dancing during the "Dance Boom?"

The National Ballet of Canada was able to go to the Met [the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in New York] every summer for four or five weeks and dance eight times a week-of course, a lot of it had to do with Nureyev. The theatre would be full most of the time-an experience that young dancers today do not get. They don't get to do the number of performances we got to do. They don't get the international exposure that we had.

What wasn'tso great about dancing at that time?

Dancers then weren't looked after as well as they are now. Doing eight shows a week, we don't do that anymore. It was very, very hard. I can remember even as a young person, weeping with fatigue and pain. We didn't have sprung floors. We did hard, hard ballets. There were no physical or massage therapists. Rudolf had a massage therapist but that was it-the rest of us didn't. We didn't even know about ice! We did know about aspirin.

So, we've come a long way in our understanding of how to care for dancers and the dancers themselves have this huge knowledge from sports medicine and cross-training. We provide a lot of these things at the company for them ... In that way, it is much better to dance now than it was in my day. [There is] more knowledge about care, about the artist and their instrument, and about how to give dancers longevity of career.

How important is touring?

I do know that these young dancers would love to dance in New York more often and be seen. It's wonderful the support we have in Toronto and the audience loves the company, but you can't just dance at home. You need to put yourself on the world stage and be judged in that arena. We don't get to do that nearly enough.

Where will you be taking the National Ballet of Canada?

The National Ballet has always had not only the ability to perform the classical ballets extremely well, but also the versatility to perform the latest cutting-edge choreography. That's a hard thing to do. We haven't always achieved a balance, in terms of repertoire presented or in the quality of the dancing on each side [of the spectrum of old and new choreography]. I aspire for this company to maintain what it's always had-the ability to nurture and create versatile dancers who are equally good in all kinds of repertoire.

I think the trick is to keep that balance because, let's face it; there are hardly any companies left in the world that can do the classics well-very few-and you don't want to lose that ability to help dance keep moving forward. What [young dancers] love about this company is the variety of the repertoire they are challenged with. One day they can be in bare feet or boots and the next, they're in pointe shoes. It's hard on the body, but I think young people want the ability to be able to explore all kinds of dance.

Describe Rudolf Nureyev's influence on you as an artistic director.

The whole idea of achieving more than you believe you can achieve by pushing yourself to your limits physically and emotionally is what I learned. I think he taught me that by his own example, but Rudolph also did so by pushing me, demanding more of me-and I was pretty demanding on myself already! He had a wonderful ability to discover talent and challenge it. But even as Rudolph challenged me, I knew that he had a great affection for me. Because I knew he believed in me, I could rise to the challenge. I hope I provide the same for this generation.

What about Celia Franca? (Franca is the founder of the National Ballet of Canada who was feted recently in Ottawa for her eighty-fifth birthday.)

She was very tough with standards and demands, but she was very intelligent, funny and warmhearted at the same time-and she still is. I dedicated the first season in the new house [the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts] to her, and I am hoping that she will come on November 9 since that's our first performance in the new house.

Erik Bruhn, also taught you some important lessons, no? (Bruhn was a great dancer of his day, who later became the artistic director of NBC,1983-1986.)

Again, here was someone who opened a lot of doors and who not only provided a lot of insights into the technical side of dance, but also allowed your humanness to come through [in dancing], which in fact is more of what an audience can relate to-unless, of course, you are playing a role that is not supposed to be human! But he used to also talk about having a mystery and drawing people into your world. He was a brilliant artist and he was a great catalyst to a lot of artistic things that happened in this company. His relationship with Celia Franca, all the productions he did for us, his Swan Lake-which I loved and was the first full-length ballet that I had acclaim in-all of that was the influence of Erik Bruhn.

These people aren't around anymore, but there are new great people whom I want to invite here and work with these dancers so that when they are at my stage in their lives they can look back on their careers and think about all the great influences they had.

Such as...?

Oh, there are so many people. William Forsythe, John Neumeier, Glen Tetley, Jiri Kylian-and I'm thinking internationally here-as well as the great Canadian choreographers. I want these people to come and interact with our artists. These are just some of them.

Where is the National Ballet now?

It truly feels like a new era. It helps to have those kinds of defining things-a brand new home that is spectacular, has wonderful acoustics and is beautiful. To have all that and to have me completing my first year; it feels like we are getting a new 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.

What are the advantages of the new millennium?

I think technology is offering us opportunities. We just did our first simulcast in Nathan Phillips Square. A thousand people watched and cheered and cried and carried on while watching the Gala performance [from the new Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on June 22]. For me, that's a new door of technology that can help us share what we do with more people. It's very exciting to have that for the very first time.

Tell me about the evolution of your career from dance student to chair of the Canada Council for the Arts.

For my whole life, I've said this to people but I don't think they believe it: My whole life professionally unfolded in a way that I could never, ever have foreseen. My biggest goal when I was in school was to get into the National Ballet of Canada. Then it was to be able to occasionally dance a solo. Before I knew it, I was a principal. Then it was Rudolph Nureyev telling me I could do this, this, and this [like challenging roles and guesting around the world]. Things just kept rolling along and were never part of a plan.

Then I finished my career and James Kuldeka [Kain's predecessor at the NBC] invited me to come back and be a part of senior management. First I was artist in residence, then I was artistic associate. I started to learn about management and fundraising and all these things-I just "unfolded." Then I got a call asking me if I would allow my name to go forward to be chair of the Canada Council: "Whoa!" But, then I thought, I had the time [Kain's appointment to chair the Canada Council preceded her artistic directorship of NBC by several months] and I wasn't so extraordinarily busy. I thought, this can help all the arts in the country and it won't just be for the National Ballet of Canada. This is a way to use my celebrity for a very good reason to draw attention to the fact that the Canada Council is underfunded and that the artists in this country need more support.

If I've been lucky enough to have this kind of career then I have a responsibility to give back. Taking on the Canada Council is a part of that; wanting to do something for the other artists who were coming up behind or alongside me.

What sort of a difference has the Canada Council made to your dance career?

I honestly, sincerely feel grateful for the career and the support I have had. As a young artist I got a couple of little grants from the Canada Council. One of those helped me go to the International Ballet Competition in Moscow [where, in 1973, Kain and Frank Augustyn won a gold medal for best pas de deux and Kain won a silver in the women's division]. Things like that were extremely important in my career. The grants were small amounts of money, but they made a big difference at a certain point.

What have you learned chairing the Canada Council?

I've learned a lot. I've learned a lot about the arts activity in our entire country, which is quite astonishing. Of course, the depressing part is how little support there is, how many wonderful artists, projects, companies, publishers get turned down-not because their proposals aren't good but because there isn't enough funding to support, even on a basic level, all the wonderful artistic activity in our country. That's depressing.

The Canada Council is an incredible institution with an incredible staff and a very caring board. We've worked really hard to get the "Tomorrow Starts Today" program renewed and get an extra fifty million from a government that said it had five priorities, and culture certainly wasn't one of them. So, I think we've had some major victories for the clients of the Council, but it just isn't enough. It's not nearly enough.

What are your hopes for the Canada Council's 50th anniversary?

I had originally hoped we would be celebrating a doubling of the budget of the Canada Council and along with that celebration, festivities across the country with the clients-a party, in effect. But there will not be any of that. We have to stick to our core mission and support our clients, so there won't be such a celebration, unfortunately.

I hope that, in ways that don't cost much money, we can let more people know what the Canada Council is and what it does. I think the artists across the country certainly know, but I don't think the general public knows.

And it is hard to get the general public to support public funding for the arts if they don't actually know what the [Canada Council] is called or what it does. They come across it every day in one way or another, whether it's in magazines or books or theatre or art galleries-all those things. There are so many ways that the Canada Council touches their lives, but they do not know.

Do you think that politicians still hold that widely held belief that the arts are frivolous, or only for the elite?

It's an old [impression] that's stuck no matter how much proof is put in front of them about what the arts do for cities. And those who love to visit London, Paris, and Prague-and Barcelona, a prime example of what's been done-see and enjoy these places and still do not actually realize that it's the bohemian index that makes them so. It's also the architecture, history and the culture, and the bringing it all to life in the present day that makes these interesting places to visit and live.

Despite everything, I feel we live in a fantastic country. I just wish there was a greater understanding and appreciation from the leaders of this country.

For more about the National Ballet of Canada under Kain's first year of direction, 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.