Ballet’s artistic director says Nureyev changed her life

Karen Kain, who became one of the National Ballet of Canada’s international stars before becoming it
Karen Kain
Karen Kain

Karen Kain, who became one of the National Ballet of Canada’s international stars before becoming its artistic director in 2005, can’t say enough about the impact famed Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev had on her life and career.

“He changed my life . . . taking me under his wing,” Kain said. “He gave me confidence and guided me for a decade to give me the kind of career I had. Few gave me that level of commitment.”

Kain, who was born in 1951 in Hamilton, Ontario, had trained at the company’s school, from which she graduated in 1969. Two years later she debuted in “Swan Lake” and was promoted to principal dancer the same year. In 1973, the company’s life changed when Nureyev was hired to stage “The Sleeping Beauty” for the company’s debut at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Attracting notice

It was during the first day of rehearsal that Nureyev happened to notice Kain, who was a tall, elegant, dark-haired beauty and the youngest principal dancer, and asked why she was not doing the lead role of Aurora.

’National Ballet of Canada’

WHEN: July 16-18

WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center

PROGRAM: “Four Seasons” and “Emergence” 8 p.m. July 16

“Giselle” 8 p.m. July 17; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. July 18

HOW MUCH: $80–$24; Children 12 and under free on lawn; $5 discount with Price Chopper Advantage card and Saratoga Arts Pass

MORE INFO: 584-9330,

In Diane Solway’s book “Nureyev: His Life” (William Morrow & Co. 1998), Solway tells how Nureyev worked with Kain over the next few months on every aspect of her dancing. In time, they became a favorite team that danced all over the world, which gave Kain an international reputation she would not have achieved on her own. YouTube has a few of their famed pas de deux.

Kain said in the book that she hadn’t been a particularly ambitious or confident person, but with Nureyev’s attention, she really lit up. She also discovered that the more he asked of her and the more she gave, she more she had to give. His focus was very compelling and helped to fuel her a long way, she said.

Kain would go on to dance all the major full-length roles, including Giselle, which the company will dance July 17 and 18 at its Saratoga Performing Arts Center debut. Indeed, that role was one of the first she danced in 1969 in Sir Peter Wright’s version — the same version SPAC audiences will see.

“The role of Giselle is a huge transformation,” Kain said. “She goes from being a young peasant girl falling in love to having her heart broken and betrayed. But in the German legend, girls who are betrayed before her wedding day become like vampires called wilis. They kill men who wander into the forests. They’re women of the night.”

The ballet, which premiered in 1841, still works fantastically now, she said.

“Giselle is a huge character study with changes. It’s hard dancing,” Kain said. “In Act II, there is very demanding technical choreography. Giselle must float. Dancers need to work very hard as Giselle.”

Kain won gold and silver medals with dancer Frank Augustyn at the 1973 Moscow International Dance Competition for the best pas de deux. She created a stream of roles in new ballets for National Ballet of Canada, performed as a guest artist with several other companies, and continued to dance beyond age 40.

Television specials reinforced her celebrity and she’s received numerous awards both as a dancer and administrator, including the 1991 Companion of the Order of Canada; the 1996 Cartier Lifetime Achievement Award (she was the first Canadian to receive the award); the 2000 Officier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from France; the 2002 Governor General’s Performing Arts Award and the 2011 Distinguished Artist Award from the International Society for the Performing Arts.

Changing role

In 1996, Kain announced she wanted to retire as a full-time principal dancer, but continued to dance in galas and took a farewell tour across Canada. She was surprised when in 1998, the company’s artistic director James Kudelka asked her to become the company’s artist-in-residence, which was amended two years later into artistic associate.

“I was leaving the company with no goal in mind,” Kain said. “But when I was asked to stay, I was happy to contribute to the organization [that] gave me such a long career.”

She turned her attention to coaching, staging a few works from the repertory and started fundraising. But being off the stage took some getting used to.

“It was a difficult transition,” she said. “My whole life had been consumed by being a performing artist. But I decided to move through it and to focus on the next part of my life. It’s good to be useful.”

She and the company were not prepared when Kudelka abruptly left in 2005.

“It was a surprise. He had threatened to leave a million times,” she said. “A committee formed on how to proceed and did a search of 100 people worldwide.”

Unexpectedly, they offered Kain the job.

“I was thrilled about getting the job,” she said. “I thought: can I do this? Was I ready to do this? Then, I’d give it a shot.”

Kain has made a few changes since in repertoire and personnel.

“My goals are to keep the level high and to present a broad spectrum of interesting repertoire for the public and the dancers,” she said. “I have 70 versatile dancers and a lot of new work.”

Besides having a full orchestra, under music director David Briskin, to support her dancers, the best part of her job is to work with the choreographers, she said.

Choosing program

For the company’s SPAC debut, Kain chose Kudelka’s “Four Seasons” to the iconic Vivaldi score; and Crystal Pite’s “Emergence” to an electronic score. Kudelka’s piece is a masterpiece, she said, and Pite’s work has won four Dora Theater Awards.

But keeping the company healthy is a priority, which means Kain must be its primary fundraiser.

“Every day is a challenge but fun,” she said. “Fundraising is easier if people enjoy the product. It’s easier to ask them to support.”

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