National treasure

As Karen Kain receives the RAD’s most prestigious award, she tells David Jays that her stellar career happened almost by accident.

Karen Kain. Photo: Karolina Kuras.

Good luck trying to get Karen Kain to brag. She may be Canada’s most illustrious ballerina and artistic director of its National Ballet, she may have been Rudolf Nureyev’s chosen partner and Margot Fonteyn’s gigglesome colleague – but to hear her tell it, her career is pure serendipity. ‘The doors just kept opening,’ she says, still sounding surprised.

She cuts an immaculate figure in the swank room at Canada House on London’s Trafalgar Square. Cream coated and silver haired, she hasn’t performed for over 20 years yet her posture is ramrod, her cheekbones still sushi-knife-sharp. And though I’d guess that interviews are far from her favourite thing, she accepts each question, nudges aside the praise, responds with modest candour. The RAD has just given her its cherished Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award – a kind of lifetime achievement honour – but although gratified, Kain is miles away from arrogant.

At first, ballet was all about the joy, at Saturday-morning classes in the small Ontario town of Ancaster. ‘Other parents said to my mum, “she goes into a trance when she’s dancing. Have you ever heard of the National Ballet School?” Of course my mother had never heard of it – it was all foreign to us.’ At 11 she left home to begin vocational training: ‘My parents were determined for all of their children that any door that was opening for them, they wanted to help them through it.’

I ask what people meant by her going into a trance? ‘It was the innocence of childhood,’ she considers. ‘You totally go into your own world – just you and the music and your imagination.’ That absorption continued – though committed to ballet she insists there was no kind of career plan. ‘I see young people today calculating what they need to do to move forward with their careers and I didn’t have that kind of wherewithal.’ At 18, she went straight into the National Ballet, but soon left the corps. ‘People were injured or not well, so I didn’t have to wait a long time for the opportunities – which I got even though I wasn’t ready, quite frankly. I guess that is better than waiting too long. The doors just kept opening.’

Kain with Nureyev in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Barry Philip.

‘And then,’ she continues, ‘Rudolf came into my life.’ Nureyev, a frequent guest star in Toronto, picked Kain as his favoured partner and became the young dancer’s mentor. ‘I don’t really know why he chose me,’ she admits. ‘I was too tall for him, but it didn’t bother him at all. He said there was something about my energy. Also, I was like a sponge – for every theory he shared with me, every rehearsal where he coached me. To those that he believed in, he was the most loyal, generous mentor and friend.’

More than one door was opened by Nureyev, who helped put her name on the international map. ‘We weren’t ideally suited in any way,’ she says now, ‘except that we could create some chemistry and energy in our shows. He wanted bravery, he wanted you to take chances and be bold the way he was. He was always challenging himself and that was an inspiration to all of us. He was clearly struggling at times because he worked too much, too hard – but if he had dancers around him who gave him energy, he loved that.’

In 1975, Nureyev asked her to dance alongside him and Margot Fonteyn in Washington. In The Moor’s Pavane, the two women held a pose at the back of the stage, where Fonteyn chattered and joked: ‘Rudolf could hear and got really mad at us!’ He also taught Kain a last-minute variation from Le Corsaire (‘Margot was behind me going, “Ready, steady, go!”’) and the two legends then coached her in Swan Lake. ‘Everything she told me he would argue about – “But that’s not what you did!” It was hilarious.’ Fonteyn, she says, ‘treated me like an old friend – because Rudolf loved me  she decided she would love me too.’

Somewhere along the way, the trance-like innocence wore off, and the pleasure along with it. ‘I lost it for a while,’ Kain reflects, ‘I wasn’t able to tap into it because I was becoming very concerned with improving my technique. Then I went through a period where I was too self-conscious about what I didn’t have. If you look in the mirror too much you lose touch with the dancer you are inside. You’re hyper-critical and then you start to defeat yourself.’ As depression deepened during her later twenties, Kain took time away from ballet – ‘there was a year when I disappeared’ – until hard thinking and psychological help brought her back. Now, she tries to warn dancers who fall into habitual self-criticism: ‘you can have lift-off, as I call it, if you accept it will never be perfect. Enjoy the moments that you’re proud of and don’t take all the joy out of yourself.’

Karen Kain in Swan Lake. Photo: Andrew Oxenham.

How about her role, since 2005, as Artistic Director – where is the fun there? She responds with conviction. ‘The fun is picking the repertoire that you think will work really well on your company and watching them rise to the occasion.’ She loves the way visiting choreographers see something altogether fresh in a company dancer. ‘The process brings something out of them and gives them a confidence that’s life-changing. I’ve seen that quite a bit, especially with John Neumeier, because he works with the emotions and unleashes a kind of imagination that the dancers might not have tapped into before. To see how they rise to the occasion – that’s the only thing that really is joyful for me in this job. The rest of it is…’ She pauses. ‘More complicated and difficult.’

Difficulties include delivering disappointing news to dancers: ‘The HR, as I call it. Sitting across from someone whose expectations are so much higher than you can deliver. That’s the part of the job that’s the hardest and that we don’t get a lot of training in.’ Programming too is challenging, a balancing act between art and budget: ‘It’s scary!’ says Kain. ‘Thank God for The Nutcracker.’

A youthful march against climate change passes below us through

Trafalgar Square. ‘Good for them,’ Kain declares. ‘We need the young people to be rising up.’ Closer to home, the #MeToo movement has reached ballet – did Kain see it coming? ‘I was one of those women who thought we have to accept that there’s always going to be some very bad behaviour from men and we just have to find our way through. You learned as a woman to skirt around it. But I didn’t imagine it was changeable. When this whole MeToo thing happened, I was: yeah, good, great. Because it was really time for us to not behave this way.’

The next time Kain says she didn’t have a plan, I press back. Would she really have been content to pass her career in the corps? ‘I think I wouldn’t have been that happy,’ she admits, carefully. So, as the QEII Award invites her to reflect on an exceptional life in dance, can she own a satisfaction in what she has achieved? ‘What I own is that I realise how fortunate I was. Circumstances unfolded at every point in my life that moved me forward in my career and as a person. I didn’t have the strength of character to make it all happen myself, the way some young people can, I really needed guidance and support from mentors to help me fly.’ On this, she’s unwavering. ‘I’m not being modest. I’m being truthful.’

This article appeared in Dance Gazette, Issue 3, 2019.