KAREN KAIN – Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Canada
The truly inspiring former prima-ballerina, now Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Canada, remembers her first solo and eating Ice-cream, taking on the lead in Swan Lake at 19 and the fleeting nature of success with LULA.
Did you dream of being a dancer growing up?
Karen: I wanted to be a dancer since I saw my first ballet at eight years old. I saw Giselle and was completely captivated by it, and immediately wanted to take lessons. It was quite spectacular, though I appreciated the first act more than the second at that age.
When did you start dancing – what was your first ballet?
Karen: I remember the first time I was invited to Toronto to a show of Royal Academy of Dancing finals – I was probably eight or nine at the time, and it was a big deal for me. I got to do a solo, and afterwards my parents took me out for ice-cream. That is really my first memory of actually dancing…
What were you like as a little girl?
Karen: I Think I was not always a happy little girl. I was quite physical and I liked sports – cross country and track and field I particlularly liked. I guess I liked to express myself physically, and would have been an athlete if I hadn’t pursued dance. I went to the National Ballet boarding school at 11 in Toronto for seven years.
Was it fun – like Enid Blyton’s St Clare’s or Malory Towers?
Karen: There were fun aspects to it, but it’s hard to be away from home when you’re so young. You have to learn to get along with people that aren’t your family, but that you’re around all the time. At ballet school there is always a level of competition – and it can be difficult. I still have friends I made at school, some went on to be dancers and some didn’t – it is a hard path to follow.
Did you study other types of dance?
Karen: We studied other types of dance – they made sure we were well-rounded. It is crucial if you are going to be a good dancer. We did character dancing, yoga and partnering on top of ballet and our school work.
You must have had long days!
Karen: Yes! We were up at 7am to practice ballet, then regular school all day long and then another dance lesson afterwards. There’s no other way to fit in the required education and ballet training so they were very long days. I think it’s a gift though, to be a young person and have a goal – in dance if you don’t figure out early that its what you do and work hard you don’t have a chance, so it makes you focus.
What has been your favourite part to play?
Karen: I like all the parts I’ve had. I gravitated towards the more interpretive ballet’s like Giselle and Sleeping Beauty – mostly I liked the big, dramatic works like Onegin and Romeo and Juliet, being a ‘real’ woman in dramatic situations. The ballet’s that were more about technique were not my favourite to perform.
What’s your favourite costume you've ever worn?
Karen: I loved the tutu from Act 1 in Sleeping Beauty and the amazing dress Tatiana wears in Onegin.
Does wearing certain costumes help you bring the character to life?
Karen: Yes definitely, it helps you to define the character, the hair and make-up too. Sometimes I found it hard to connect with the character until I had the entire costume, hair and make-up on. Sometimes you have to wear costumes you don’t like, but you have to visualize the whole and understand that it goes with the piece and the set and it works in that context- it’s up to you to present the story with the designer’s point-of-view. Most of the time I loved my costumes though!
How do you define success?
Karen: For me, I think it’s defined by moments I’ve felt that I have fulfilled my potential and justified the years of training, hopes and responsibilities and have done my absolute best. Those moments don’t last very long though! It’s fleeting, and that’s what inspires you to keep moving forward. Now I don’t dance anymore, but I still have the same feelings about doing my best – all you can is work your hardest and hope it all works out. Success is essentially fleeting.
As a dancer, the life-span of your work can be short – were you ever afraid of aging?
Karen: As a young person I wasn’t afraid of aging because I never thought I would get old! I was sort of fatalistic about it, just accepted it and made the most of it. There’s nothing you can do about it so it’s futile to worry!
Were you competitive?
Karen: Yes I think so – I don’t think you can be too retiring and succeed in this career. It’s a very competitive business and so you have to have some kind of a competitive spirit – not in a nasty way – but just competeitive because there is always so much talent around and everyone has the same short time to do what they do.
Have you always loved dance - were there times you didn't?
Karen: There were times I was very discouraged. Generally speaking it is difficult to maintain your confidence and endurance. I don’t think there’s any dancer that doesn’t have times like that – it’s exhausting and you can lose your enthusiasm. In this profession its so physically draining that I would consider leaving it behind, but I always loved it more than I was discouraged by it, so here I am today still doing it…
Did you ever want to do anything else?
Karen: Sometimes I thought I’d want to be a veterinarian. But with ballet, you have to make your mind up early that its what you want to do because your career is over at 40 – if you’re lucky.
Describe the transition between dancing and becoming a principal dancer – did it come with a lot of pressure?
Karen: As a dancer you work hard and hope someone gives you a role you can shine in. I got Swan Lake at 19 years old because everyone else got sick…
Karen: It was circumstantial, I was so young to be the principal but they could see I had the potential to take o that role. I got accustomed to the pressure, and learned to manage my stage fright. When I was younger I was never worried, then started getting stage fright as I got older. It makes you feel like you have the flu – you cant get your mind off it, you have such anxiety. But then when you start dancing, it’s like second nature and everything is fine.
How was the transition from being principal dancer to becoming artistic director of the National ballet of Canada?
Karen: You take on an entirely different perspective. As a dancer its about your hopes and dreams, and then as the Artistic Director it’s about realizing the hopes and dreams of an entire organization. My role is about giving young dancers the chance to shine, while also giving the older talent their chance. It’s challenging.
You have been happily married to your husband Ross Petty for many years, how did you meet?
Karen: We met through mutual friends at Winnipeg – where both he and my parents are from. Ross was appearing in Sweeney Todd in the leading role at the time, and we met through the production’s wardrobe master. He now produces his own holiday entertainment variety show, pantomime using singers, dancers and comedians. We are both very busy and have to schedule time to see each other.
Sweet, like you’re still dating…
Karen: It’s fun! We think up topics to discuss on our ‘date nights’ – and we’ve been together 29 years!
What is your proudest moment?
Karen: When I feel I’m doing a job well, I’m proud. I’ve been doing this job now for five years, and when it all comes together in a way that I feel I am making the future of the Canada National Ballet brighter, I feel very proud. It’s a great company and my career as a ballet dancer led me here, which is quite wonderful.