One of Canada's most nationally and internationally renowned ballet dancers who continued to to dance past the age of 40, in retirement Karen Kain became the artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada.
Karen Alexandria Kain, CC, dancer, ballet director (born 28 March 1951 in Hamilton, Ontario). Karen Kain is one of Canada's finest and most internationally renowned dancers, and a respected public figure. She continued working with the National Ballet of Canada (NBC) beyond her retirement as a ballerina, eventually becoming the company's artistic director in 2005. Currently, she still holds the position of artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada.
Early Life and Career
Karen Alexandria Kain was born in 1951 in Hamilton, Ontario, the oldest of four siblings. At the age of eight her mother enrolled her in ballet school. Five years later, in 1962, she began training at the National Ballet School of Canada, which at the time was run by Betty Oliphant. Kain attended the National Ballet School of Canada under a partial scholarship because her parents could not afford full tuition.
When she turned 18, Kain was offered a contract at the National Ballet of Canada by the founder and artistic director, Celia Franca. She accepted the offer and, in January 1971, made her debut in the challenging role of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake, and was promoted to principal rank the same year. It was also in this year that she first danced with Frank Augustyn in Intermezzo, directed by Eliot Field. Kain and Augustyn would go on to dance together in many acclaimed performances. In 1973, she won the women's silver medal and, with Augustyn, the prize for the best pas de deux at the Moscow International Ballet competition. Rudolf Nureyev, the great Soviet-trained dancer who had staged The Sleeping Beauty for the company in 1972, took a special interest in Kain and Augustyn, and helped accelerate their rapid ascent to fame as Canada's favourite dance partnership, "the gold-dust twins." Kain also appeared frequently with Nureyev in guest engagements around the world. From 1973 to 1984, she toured internationally with him, appearing in ballets such as The Sleeping Beautyand Swan Lake.
National and International Success
Kain’s strong technique, breadth of movement, sensitive musicality, daring attack and versatile dramatic ability were shown to advantage in both classical and contemporary works. During her 28 years dancing with the National Ballet, Karen Kain accumulated an exceptionally large repertoire that included all the major full-length ballerina roles and an extraordinarily varied range of leading roles in shorter works. She infused such traditional roles as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, the Swan Queen and the title role in Giselle with personal distinctiveness. She brought heartbreaking intensity to John Cranko's Romeo and Juliet and a vivid sense of romantic comedy to Frederick Ashton's La Fille mal gardée. From early in her career, choreographers were eager to create roles for her, including the celebrated Frenchman Roland Petit, with whose Ballet National de Marseille Kain performed as a guest artist for almost a decade from 1974. Her loyalties, however, were firmly entrenched in Canada and the National Ballet, facts that helped endear her to the public and made Kain a household name.
With her home company, she created a steady stream of roles in ballets, such as: Ann Ditchburn's Mad Shadows; Constantin Patsalas's Rite of Spring, Sinfonia and Oiseaux exotiques; Glen Tetley's Alice, La Ronde and Tagore; John Alleyne's Time Out with Lola; Christopher House's Café Dances; John Neumeier's Now and Then; and Dominique Dumais's Tides of Mind. She forged a particularly strong creative relationship with James Kudelka, originating roles in Rape of Lucrece, Musings, The Miraculous Mandarin, Spring Awakening and The Actress.
Retirement from the Stage
Karen Kain's performing career lasted well beyond the norm for ballerinas, and although she relinquished major roles to which she felt herself no longer suited, her dancing beyond age 40 blossomed into new dimensions of creativity, dramatic complexity and emotional depth. Nevertheless, in 1996, Kain announced her intention to retire as a full-time principal dancer with the company, prompting the impresario Garth Drabinsky to celebrate her accomplishments by producing a cross-Canada farewell tour in the summer and early fall of 1997. Kain continued to dance for another year, frequently with the senior company of Nederlands Dans Theater, NDT3 and in a variety of galas.
Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Canada
Kain accepted Artistic Director James Kudelka's invitation to rejoin the National Ballet in 1998 with the title artist-in-residence, amended to artistic associate in 2000. Although she did reappear on stage as Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, Kain focused her efforts on coaching the dancers, staging select works from the repertoire, fundraising and contributing generally as a member of the senior executive management team. When Kudelka abruptly resigned in May 2005, Kain, amidst general approval, was soon named as his successor. Currently, she still holds the position of artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada. Some of the most acclaimed and memorable productions under her leadership include: Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia (2009); Alexei Ratmansky’s Romeo and Juliet (2012); Kevin O’Day’s Hamlet (2012); Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon(2014) ; John Neumeier’s Nijinsky (2014); and Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale (2015).
Kain's celebrity has been reinforced by frequent television specials and other appearances. She starred in Norman Campbell's TV productions of Giselle, La Fille mal gardée, The Merry Widow, La Ronde and Alice. She has been the subject of several documentaries, most recently Anthony Azzopardi's Making Ballet, based on The Actress, and David Langer's CBC Life and Times documentary, also based on The Actress. She was also featured in Veronica Tennant's Karen Kain: Dancing in the Moment for CBC Television, which won an International Emmy Award in 1999.
Throughout her career Kain has worked in a voluntary capacity for a variety of charitable organizations and public institutions, among them the Kidney Foundation, the Toronto Humane Society and Foster Parents Plan Canada. Notably, she was founding president of the Dancer Transition Resource Centre, which assists dancers to plan for and accomplish a smooth transition from stage performance to a new career. Kain acted as chair of the board of the Canada Council for the Arts from 2004–08. The Karen Kain School of the Arts, so named by Toronto elementary school children to honour her career-long contributions to the arts, opened in 2008 in Etobicoke, Ontario.
Officer of the Order of Canada (1976)
Companion of the Order of Canada (1991)
Cartier Lifetime Achievement Award (1996)
Officier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (2000)
Barbara Hamilton Memorial Award (2007)
Distinguished Artist Award, International Society for the Performing Arts (2011)
Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012)
The Peter Herrndorf Arts Leadership Award (2016)
J. Fraser, Kain and Augustyn (1977); D. Street, Karen Kain, Lady of Dance (1978); K. Kain, S. Godfrey, and P. Reed Doob, Movement Never Lies: An Autobiography (1994); K. Kain and R. Kupesic, The Nutcracker (2005).