Q & A With National Ballet’s Artistic Director Karen Kain – My Personal Reverence To You Karen

Photo credits: Karolina Kuras and Cylla von Tiedemann

Meeting Karen Kain always excites me. Her thoughtful choice of words, her very ladylike stateliness, and gentleness coupled with her own personal discipline not to mention her immense mesmerizing beauty always intrigues me.  I initially met Karen over 10 years ago, and the most startling revelation was that she has the most unique chartreuse green eyes. It was different than I expected. As a young dancer imitating through slow motion VHS recordings of her movement, scrutinizing every move every muscle, every change of weight from left to right foot, fawning over every book and photo, and trying to personally emulate everything from her distinct posture, her fresh usage of her arms and hands, and even the way she ties and places ribbons on her pointe shoes, (which I soon realized was a disastrous goal considering that all feet are shaped differently and thus they all need different support.) I thought that naturally her eyes would be blue, considering the predictability of that classic combination of her espresso hair and porcelain skin. So you can see, how this was strikingly unusual and strangely disconcerting for me.

For almost 10 years Karen and I have had a mutually beneficial relationship. I supported the NBC by providing gowns for her and her dancers for various fundraisers and weddings most notably the NBC annual gala, the $1500 per plate event that is considered one of the most exuberant, and sophisticated black tie events in Canada.

During this time I used the NBC dancers exclusively for my New York runway shows, international advertising campaigns, as well, I hired some of the dancers to work at my Toronto, Yorkville retail location, and there was always need to communicate with Karen regarding coordinating her rehearsal schedules with my fitting schedules.

In 2006, one of the first events at the new Four Season’s Centre of Performing Arts was the Ballet Gala in which Karen wore one of the most elaborate dresses that I have ever designed. It was a strapless mermaid gold lace gown covered with over 3000 ballet pink colored Swarovski crystals, that matched the new interior décor of the art centre.

The audience was anxious and overwhelmed by the newness of the venue. It was the excitement of this magnificent project that was finally finished occupying Queen Street and University Road, and the unique joy of being of the first to appreciate this historic moment. Most of the savvy concert going crowd stood in awe turning 360 to marvel at the new space prior to the lights going down and when all were seated, the first few bars of the musical prelude began, the chic-ly modern nude velvet curtains were raised upon a solitary luminous Karen Kain in my gown. We all heard the 2000 plus audience members gasping, then waiting about a second and not just applauding, but vocally cheering out loud.

One of the dancers stated that it was like she was wearing melted pink gold lava.

I am personally honored and humbled to have been part of that spectacular moment.

Karen Kainat at the Illuminata Gala in Justina McCaffrey Gown

Ottawa Life: I am really happy with what you have done with the National ballet since you have come on as the Artistic Director. It was so appropriate when they were looking for a new person 10 years ago. You were the only person to fill this role. All eyes were on you, and I was really overjoyed when it happened and you took that role.

Since then, I have seen a dramatic change, a beautiful change, in the National Ballet. I sense that,  (and I could be wrong), but I sense that you now acknowledge that there is another 50% of the population – example – men, thus creating and bringing forth ballets that really celebrate men. You are presenting Onegin with a male principal role, and that is not often seen with most other ballet companies. I enjoy the pieces like The Man In Black and the Rolling Stones piece that you performed. There was another one, I think the music was by Benjamin Britten and the choreography had a war sequence in it, and I thought that was really masculine as well.I really like to see great masculine men on stage.

Karen Kain: Well we have so many great men in our company, and you have to utilize their talent just as much as the ballerinas and the rest of the company. The fact is that I cannot take credit for any of those ones that you mentioned. They were in the repertoire before, and I just brought them back.


Uh huh. Onegin has been in the rep when I was dancing. It has been there forever. We bring it back regularly like, every 4 or 5 years because it’s so extraordinary. What I did was get a new set made. Because our own set disintegrated, so I had to find the money, and raise the money to get it done, so I asked Santo Loquasto, the brilliant designer, and I asked him to make us one that wouldn’t fall apart, and one that we can rent to other companies. We rented it to ABT, and San Francisco ballet. Boston Ballet wanted it but it wouldn’t quite fit in their theatre, so I thought that we could do the ballet again. That was the first plus. Second plus, is that we can rent it to other theatres and get some income.

Just like how you rent Alice in Wonderland.

Ah no, we don’t rent Alice. We paid half of the sets and costumes of Alice, and we paid half of Winters Tale, We own those productions. We co-produced. That’s different from renting. Royal Ballet did it first, it was their idea, and then they invited us and we agreed to be co-producers. So that’s why Alice goes back and forth across the ocean. And the Alice that is being done now, is being done in Europe although they have to build their own productions.

Same choreography of course

Yes, but all of the sets and costumes belong to the Royal Ballet and the National Ballet, so if they wanted to perform it, they would have to pay for all the artistic rights, and they would have to build their own sets. Otherwise ours would completely fall apart because everybody would be using it.  It’s already enough that the two companies are using it as much as they are, and Winter’s Tale keeps going back and forth across the ocean.

That’s a really great arrangement.

It’s a new model. It doesn’t happen that often. The Royal Ballet has never co-produced with anyone else before, and I don’t think we have either.  We talked about it, but we didn’t do it. Oh no, maybe The Firebird, James Kuldelka’s version was a co-production. But other than that we have never done co-produced with a different company.

I see the National Ballet as the ballet company that really epitomizes Canadiana in terms of how our voice is articulated to the rest of the world of ballet. Its what we stand for in ballet. That’s the way I see it.

I am glad that you see it, but I don’t think that the other dance companies in Canada would agree with you. I mean they tour more than we do. Like Toronto Dance Theatre, a lot of companies are more able to tour. We can come here because we are subsidized. I wish we can go to Vancouver.

You cannot go there?

Not unless someone gives us a lot of money.


You can imagine how much it costs to bring all the dancers, the orchestra, that’s 100 people, plus a crew? Airfares, hotel rooms?

But you would make it back in the ticket sales – right?

Ticket sales don’t pay for everything.

But it was a packed house last night.

It doesn’t begin to pay for the costs. We were subsidized to pay for all this. Do the math on the transportation and 150 people on the road staying in hotels, and there is per diems and crew, and renting the house. NAC helps in subsidizing us because they have a budget to bring in Canadian companies, and then we have donors. That’s why they mention the donors at the beginning. You should see the cost sheet of the whole production. We use the NAC orchestra because we don’t bring our own and that’s great. But all the numbers of dancers to do the ballet, and then we have the wardrobe, and the support staff, and then the ballet masters and me.

Very important! (laughs)

Its very, very expensive. And this is a short haul. To go across the country… See, we used to go across the country because the Canada Council supported us.


But now, most cities have their own ballet companies and their own audiences and their own territory, and not only can we not afford it, but I think its not always that welcomed to have this huge massive organization move themselves in.

I think it’s a treat, when the National Ballet comes to Winnipeg, I know that there are a lot of ballet people in that city and they always enjoy watching you and seeing the National Ballet dancers. It’s a different way of articulating a familiar piece, or perhaps a different program.

Oh, it is a treat, and its lovely, and we did do it a while ago, but we did it with a smaller group.

What about when you go to the states?

We only go to the states when we are subsidized. That’s why we only go to Los Angeles, Washington, and New York, We have people who produce it and who subsidize us, and we go to the big theatres who have the big budget to take us. We don’t just decide to tour the whole US. These cities are interested in the same work that we are doing.

But that’s great for them to see the work that you are doing, and again that goes back to what I was saying initially in that you have created the voice of what ballet in Canada is and how the world views it. 

There is something very innocent about the way you have stylized the dancers.  There is simplicity and freshness. It’s not a pompous way of dancing. It’s not a show-y way of dancing. It looks easy but it is very difficult to do, like last night it was extremely difficult to do the partnering. I was thinking, “how does she do that? To lift herself up as he was dragging her across the stage.” But it’s done with a freshness that I have never seen with any other ballet company. When I come home and see the National Ballet, it’s like coming home to a familiar place with a familiar feeling. I almost feel like the dancers are an extension of your own dance personality, style, and technique.

Well you are seeing a lot into this, I mean, I don’t coach them. We had Reid Anderson, the former artistic director and our ballet mistress and master, come back from Stuttgart and coach everyone. You’re not allowed to just put these ballets on any old way that you want. You have to get the original people who owned the rights. It would be like someone wanting to recreate a dress that you designed, and they would show a photograph and they would make a few changes, and then steal it. You know, it’s a copyright, and there is a copyright on everything that we do. Step by step. So if a principal dancer had other ideas of what they wanted to do and they did these things, they would be taken out. They have to do exactly…. That doesn’t mean that they don’t bring their emotion to their own performance.

Of course.

They have to adhere to every step of the choreography on the music the way. Every single one of them every single corps de ballet member. It doesn’t mean that they don’t bring their own personality, or their own temperament, or their own feelings, but they don’t change the choreography. Unless there is an accident and they are forced to improvise for a minute, and you know, that happens, (ha ha), but no that’s very much set. Its like a musician and taking a piece of music, and unless its music to improvise to, or whatever, and certainly some dance companies dance that way in which you improvise around it, and yes, that’s a method, but that’s not what you do when someone owns the rights.

Of course. Its intellectual property. I know all about that. ( ha ha).

If you did that, you would lose the right. So if you are doing a work by James Kuldelka, then you do exactly what James Kuldelka created to the best of your abilities. So how they dance has nothing to do with me. I am happy that they dance that way, and I am happy with the dancers I choose, because they have humility, and they are not just working to be a star but they are working to be an artist of integrity and to be part of the company and to try to adhere to the vision of the person.

Yes, That is beautiful. That is exactly what I see when I see your dancers.

Lets talk about the process and preparation of the performance.

Years ago I, somehow, (due to a travel malfunction – “don’t ask”,) ended up in New York backstage in one of my wedding dresses alongside with a number of your dancers waiting to show my new collection to my buyers using the choreography of Roberta Campaella. I never model my dresses but this was an extreme situation where we just needed an extra person to fill a spot and fit the dresses. Despite the fact I knew everyone in the audience I was still very nervous. I shared this with the other dancers and they all agreed and stated that it was their job to get nervous before every production. It was part of the performance for them to get nervous. They reminded me that people pay good money for their tickets and their commitment is for them to get nervous.

Yes, that is adrenaline, and it is part of performing. The only problem is when adrenaline takes away your best performance.

Could it?

It can if it goes overboard or if you don’t handle it and use it to your advantage because sometimes it could affect your process. However, if its just adrenaline that just affects your energy, and it makes you have a good time. That’s good. But if it’s an adrenaline that paralyzes you, that wouldn’t work at all. And some people are just more sensitive to the stress of performing than others. And hopefully as you learn more and more you get the tools to be able to control how much adrenaline you can use so you can stay really focused.

Have you ever seen a performance of a dancer who went beyond their normal abilities due to the adrenaline, and it was an unbelievable performance that you have never seen before. Have you seen that or have you experienced that before?



But I have also experienced the opposite where you are too nervous to do your best, then you start to doubt yourself or your timing is off, or your partner is stressed and you can feel them shaking and its contagious. And well, we are human beings, every single one of you and the more you do something the more you climatize yours self to stress and adrenaline, and I guess even athletes they have to do all those trials too. Sometimes they can run faster and jump higher and sometimes they freeze up. So that’s the mental part of it and it needs to be practiced and controlled and understood and remember that they have different temperaments and they react differently even under stress.

I don’t think I have ever seen one of those magical moments, or maybe I have but I don’t know because I think that these moments are normal to these dancers.

Those of us who watch them rehearse, we know when something special happens. Certainly most performances are more special than rehearsals, it’s just because of the moment.

Have you had one of those moments? 

Oh ya, lots of those moments. I have also had a lot of the bad moments too. Where I wish I had done it at least as well as I had done it in rehearsal, and then you feel really disappointed in yourself.

In one of your books you mentioned that you fell off of the stage.

Oh ya – I have slipped and fallen, and tripped and we can’t be perfect all the time.

I just thought it was endearing.