THE MAGIC OF KAREN KAIN
AFTER 20 YEARS WITH THE NATIONAL BALLET, KAREN KAIN IS GIVING HER BEST PERFORMANCES
There are only two people in the Toronto rehearsal studio: a ballet mistress, sitting erect with her back not touching the chair, and a ballerina in a black leotard and black tights standing in the centre. With the flick of a tape-deck switch, the music begins, tinkling and trance-like. Slowly, the ballerina begins to undulate to the exotic sounds. What follows is a gruelling, 17-minute workout requiring exceptional balance and sustained control. It is a familiar routine for Canadian ballerina Karen Kain, but now the international dance star is practising for a particularly significant milestone. On Nov. 29, she will mark her 20th anniversary as a member of the National Ballet of Canada with a gala performance in Toronto. On that night, the 37-year-old artist will perform a number of the works that have been pivotal in her career, establishing her as one of the most respected ballerinas in the world—and a living icon in Canada.
Flawless: Kain’s rise to stardom was meteoric. In 1970, at 19, she became the National’s youngest principal dancer. Three years later, she and company colleague Frank Augustyn won the prize for best pas de deux—and she won the silver medal as best ballerina—at the Moscow International Ballet Festival. By that time, she was already a favorite partner of Soviet-born superstar Rudolf Nureyev. Since then, she has continued to dazzle audiences around the world with her flawless technique, sensitivity to music and dramatic intensity. But, despite many offers to join other companies, she has stayed in Canada.
Kain’s associates offer various explanations for her immense talent. According to Nureyev, she has “the capacity to throw herself completely into her roles, as well as that special radiance which lights up a whole stage.” Veronica Tennant, the National’s most famous principal dancer apart from Kain, stresses the importance of Kain’s innate understanding of music. “From the very beginning,” she said, “Karen has been able to make music visible—it just emanates from her.” For her part, National Ballet founder Celia Franca says that Kain’s success stems partly from her mental and
emotional makeup. “She was clever enough to remain vulnerable,” Franca declared. “She remained sensitive instead of getting hardened, cut and dried, and ultimately less artistic. But at the same time, she has had enough common sense to learn from her life.” Toronto writer Urjo Kareda wrote that Kain is “distinguished by the boldness of her dreaming onstage.”
Inspired: Ballet requires an almost maniacal commitment to perfection. Even an artist with the rare genius and physical gifts of Kain has to engage in a daily battle of wills with her body to give a single inspired—and seemingly effortless—performance. Like most of the greatest dancers, Kain forms a vision of how she should move in a performance and then strains and drills until she gets as close as possible to that ideal. As New York City choreographer Eliot Feld, who created Echo for Kain in 1985, put it:
“She’ll denigrate her entire ability as a dancer simply because she’s 18 inches away from where she’s supposed to be. I say to her, ‘Karen, nobody in the world notices if a dancer is 18 inches off her mark.’ But any imperfection will depress her.”
Magic: Recently, she experienced a debilitating setback: two months after announcing that she was pregnant with her first child last March, she suffered a miscarriage. But with characteristic self-discipline, she quickly resumed her career—and enthralled the New York critics during the company’s performances there last summer. Tennant, who recently announced that she would end her own 25-year career in February, said, “I would like to see Karen dance her heart out because she is dancing more beautifully than she’s ever danced before.”
Kain is clearly savoring the magic period in a
dancer’s life when undiminished physical prowess and inner maturity add up to the best performances of a lifetime. “I think you develop a better understanding of what carries across the footlights,” she said in a recent interview. “And now, I am more able to control what I want to do rather than just go on adrenaline, which I did when I was young.” From a technical standpoint, she was able to handle such demanding parts as the dual role of The Swan Queen/Black Swan at 19—but being able to act the evil Black Swan convincingly was another matter. Said Kain: “I always looked like I couldn’t tell a lie. There’s nothing that will substitute for growing up and being more of a person to be a better actress.”
Kain’s artistry is also the result of thousands of hours of hard physical work. When the National Ballet is in Toronto rehearsing, the
dancers work weekdays from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. For their labor, corps members earn about $400 a week while principal dancers make at least $725. So exhausting is ballet that dancers often find they have little energy left over for their private lives. Said Kain: “I love theatre but I don’t get out much: I get so tired.” Recently in Montreal, Kain planned to go out for dinner and a movie with another member of the company after a day of rehearsals. But they abandoned their plans. “We had one drink in the hotel bar and realized that we didn’t even have the energy to go out,” said Kain. “So we had dinner at the hotel and that was it.”
Exacting: At home and on tour, a normal day begins with an hour and a half of class—an exacting regimen of exercises to music—fol-
lowed by several hours of rehearsals. A class last month in Montreal began with the traditional exercises at the bar. Slippers swished in unison on the floor as ballet master Victor Litvinov barked out the manoeuvres in the manner of a humorless square-dance caller. Swathed in motley leotards, leg-warmers and baggy plastic bloomers, the dancers remained impassive as they bent their sweating bodies neatly in two at the waist, so that heads came to rest against knees, or extended their legs out to the side and up past the shoulder, parallel to the ear.
Beauty: In the middle of the group, in a red leotard and black tights, Kain executed the movements with the precision of a sleek machine. At five feet, seven inches, she is tall for a dancer and she stands out in other ways as well. Many of the National’s dancers are fine-boned and small-featured, resembling elongated children. But Kain, with her slightly larger frame and bold beauty, looks womanly and athletic.
When there is a performance in the evening, the routine is much the same but the workday starts with class at 1 p.m. Said Kain: “Most people are not interested in the fact that we spend every day in the studio. To us, working out little details and refining ballets we’ve worked on for years is really important, but to most people that’s kind of ho-hum.” She added: “Sometimes when I’m talking [about myself], I feel apologetic because my life really isn’t all that exciting. This is what I do every day. This is what I’ve been doing for all these years.”
Despite their routineness, rehearsals—like performances—carry the risk of injury. And although Kain has been more fortunate than most, a torn hamstring in 1983 sidelined her for five months. Recalled the dancer: “I couldn’t lift my leg two inches to the front without feeling like the muscle would pull off.” During the National’s Montreal visit last month, Kain was still feeling the effects of a torn calf muscle that had forced her to cancel some of her performances on the company’s recent three-week tour of Canada’s eastern provinces. On the day of the first Montreal performance, she left class early and stretched out on an examining table while National Ballet physiotherapist Jo-Anne Piccinin performed ultrasound therapy on her leg. Said Piccinin: “Dancers are used to pain. In most cases, they hurt but it’s okay for them to keep going. Sometimes it’s not.”
Injuries: Aside from outright injury, dancers endure almost constant pain from pulled muscles and bruises. Said Kain: “If I stop dancing for two days, most of my aches go away.” Ballerinas often develop blisters on their toes which can become infected, causing severe discomfort. Other minor injuries seem to occur mysteriously. While removing her slippers after performing La Ronde in Montreal, Kain noticed a small patch of blood congealing on the top of her foot. “I don’t know where I do it,” she said, “but I always smash my foot in this one.”
In addition to pain, most dancers subject themselves to relentless dieting. Kain says that she has to work to keep her weight at 118 lb. Normally, she eats only one full meal a day and snacks on fruit and yogurt. For a few years in her adolescence, Kain’s weight got out of control. At 14, she ballooned to 130 lb. Then, when she was 17, she ate mostly lettuce and tomatoes for two weeks in order to lose 10 lb. in time for her successful National Ballet audition. Said Kain: “The minute I was accepted, I rushed to the nearest bakery and wolfed
down a dozen cookies.”
Conviction: Her obsession with dance began 30 years ago. On her eighth birthday, her father, Charles, then an executive with Westinghouse Canada Inc., and her mother, Winnifred, a homemaker, took her to see Giselle in Hamilton. It was a National Ballet performance with company founder Franca in the title role. Said Kain: “That was it. I had no idea what it involved. I just wanted to wear those pretty costumes and those pink satin shoes.” Lessons with ballet teachers in Kain’s native Ancaster,
Ont., near Hamilton, soon followed. At 10, she auditioned for the National Ballet School in Toronto. Betty Oliphant, the school’s founding director, has a clear memory of Kain’s successful audition. “I gave her a creative improvisatory thing to do, and she did it with such style and conviction,” she said. “She was only a little thing, but it was so clear that she loved to dance.”
The years at school were difficult for her. Her exceptional ability made her a favorite with the teachers, but she suffered from home-
‘Karen can make music visible so that it emanates from her’
sickness and resented the school’s rigid discipline. “She wouldn’t work at something unless she was convinced that what we were telling her was right,” said Oliphant. “In other words, she had a mind of her own.” When Kain went home on weekends to her family, which had moved to Mississauga, Ont., emotions ran high. Recalled Winnifred Kain, who is now a real estate agent: “There were times we wished she’d quit, she was so unhappy.”
But Kain persevered, joining the National Ballet in 1969. Three years later, when she was 21, she was scheduled to dance Swan Lake with guest artist Nureyev and she had a lesser role as one of the Fairies in The Sleeping Beauty. But Nureyev, after watching her in rehearsal, demanded that she play the leading role of Aurora in Beauty. Recalled Kain: “He was dancing eight shows a week, and between matinee and evening, he would come onstage in his housecoat and his leg-warmers to rehearse me in Sleeping Beauty.” She added, “He was one of the strongest influences—if not the strongest influence—in my career.” The Russian legend and the rising star first danced Beauty together in Houston on a National Ballet tour. She fulfilled Nureyev’s expectations so well that she soon found herself dancing with him at his request in Vienna and London—where the longest ovation and best
reviews went to Kain rather than to her partner.
By that time, Roland Petit, director of Paris’s Ballet National de Marseille, had become another Kain convert, describing her as “one of the three or four best ballerinas of her generation.” She starred in Petit’s Carmen in 1973, and he later created several ballets for her, including the daring, controversial Nana (1976), based on Emile Zola’s novel. The reviews for Nana were mixed, but Kain enchanted most of the critics.
Adulation: Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, she continued to dance with the National Ballet’s Frank Augustyn. They became objects of adulation at home and ambassadors of Canadian ballet on trips to Moscow and China and other distant locations. “We seemed to hear music together so it made working with each other easier and more flowing,” said Augustyn. In recent years, they have danced together less frequently, agreeing that
they need the stimulation of other partners. But they remain close friends.
For a while, Kain seemed to be ubiquitous. She appeared in Moscow with Augustyn in a 1977 engagement with the city’s Bolshoi Ballet. Then, she performed a sultry dance to jazzflavored pop music on a CBC TV variety special. Later, she hosted a special of her own and became the subject of a 1980 portrait by pop artist Andy Warhol. She was often seen with her then-boyfriend, TV star Lee Majors.
But behind the glossy celebrity exterior, cracks were beginning to appear. “I suddenly began to notice that my performances were
sold out,” Kain recalled. “People expected a great deal from me, and I didn’t think I could live up to their expectations. I was starting to question everything I did. I wanted to make it better so I started to analyse it—to take it apart. But in doing that I destroyed my love of dancing.”
Confidence: Her performances started to suffer. After the critics panned her during the National’s 1979 London engagement, Kain decided to take time off. “I was a classic burnout case,” she said. “I hadn’t taken a vacation in five years. The most I ever took was two days off—the most.” She took a leave of absence from the National and stayed with friends in France. After several weeks, she began going to class again in Paris. Soon afterward, she rejoined the company and turned to psychotherapy to rebuild her confidence. By the fall of
1980, when she danced Coppélia with Petit’s company in New York, she had rebounded strongly.
But Kain still had personal problems and she continued therapy for two years. “I learned to know deep inside myself that I really did have something wonderful to offer,” she said. “I’ve learned to love my work again. I’ve learned to love the struggle of it again instead of letting the struggle defeat me.”
Sweetheart: By 1982, Kain had managed to put her own demons to rest but she began to dislike working under the artistic leadership of Alexander Grant and considered leaving the National. The company did not renew Grant’s contract in 1982, and he was replaced the following year by Danish superstar Erik Bruhn as artistic director. The visionary, hard-driving Bruhn—who died in 1986—injected the company with new energy and commissioned the work that has given Kain one of her more powerful roles in recent years, as Alice Har-
greaves in Glen Tetley’s Alice.
Bruhn’s arrival coincided with a personal turning point in Kain’s life: she married Winnipeg-born actor Ross Petty, whom she began dating when he was in Toronto playing the lead in the New York touring production of Sweeney Todd. Kain’s colleagues in the National say that marriage has been good for her. “One gets a sense of Karen being very content within her marriage,” said Tennant. “It seems to have made her life complete.” Although Petty continues to do some acting, he is primarily a Toronto-based producer whose major project is an annual Christmas pantomime in which he and Kain both star. This year’s production, Aladdin, will travel to six Canadian cities on a 51-performance tour. Rooted in the English music-hall tradition, the show combines song, dance and acting with topical jokes. In Aladdin,
Kain plays The Genie of the Ring, who Petty said “stands for everything good and wonderful,” while he plays the villain Abanazar. Said Petty: “It’s very much like my position in the eyes of the Canadian public ever since I married Canada’s sweetheart.”
Although Petty can talk about his wife’s status as a public figure with affectionate irreverence, there are times when, for Kain herself, being the darling of a nation is no laughing matter. When her injury on the September tour led her to cancel some performances, she found herself at the centre of an ugly public dispute in St. John’s, Nfld. After she and Frank Augustyn, who was also suffering from an injury, cancelled their Sept. 29 performance there, John Perlin, Newfoundland’s director of cultural affairs, sent a letter of complaint to the National Ballet.
The St. John’s newspaper The Sunday Express then printed portions of the letter in an article about Perlin, who is himself a member of
the National Ballet’s board. The official had written that it would be “regrettable indeed” if Kain and Augustyn, who were replaced by another pair of dancers, were to go ahead with their scheduled October performances in Montreal. If they did, he said, Newfoundlanders might infer that the company’s most famous partnership was “being saved” for larger metropolitan centres. Said Kain: “I was really upset. I hate to cancel any performance.” She wrote back to Perlin and sent a copy of her own letter to The Sunday Express. “I resent your implications that it was not equally important for me to dance in St. John’s as anywhere else,” Kain wrote. “As an artist I live for my performances no matter where they are.”
Grace: Because of her celebrity, Kain is also in constant demand for fund-raising and other social engagements. Recently, she and principal dancer Serge Lavoie performed a duet at a party for one of the National Ballet’s major sponsors at a downtown Toronto hotel. Said Kain: “We do them in a ballroom, which is very strange. We warmed up in the kitchen and, during the performance, we had to keep avoiding a chandelier.” Kain has trouble saying no to any good cause: she says that her husband sometimes turns down requests on her behalf because he knows how prone she is to relent when someone gets her on the telephone.
Meanwhile, Kain clearly realizes that the time remaining to her as a dancer is limited. Although she says she has not lost any of her technical facility, she finds that she now needs more time to warm up before a performance. She has also stopped performing the ingenue leads in La Fille Mal Gardée and Coppélia because she says that they no longer suit her. “The last time I did Coppélia, I felt I was acting and that it was too obviously acting,” she said. “I haven’t really let go of any others, but I hope I have the grace to let go at the right time.”
Passion: Kain’s concern extends to others facing the end of their careers. She is president of the board of the Dancer Transition Centre, a three-year-old, Toronto-based institution that helps performers adjust to life after retirement. “Dancers often completely lose their self-esteem when they are not dancers anymore,” she said. “From the time we’re children, that’s all we do and that’s who we are— and we have such an incredible passion for what we do.” Her work with the centre has helped her to look toward a life after dance. When she became pregnant, she coached some of the younger dancers who were scheduled to replace her in her roles and found that she really enjoyed it. But she may also study acting.
For now, Kain remains at the crest of her career. And she could stay there for several more years. A lucky few, such as Britain’s Dame Margot Fonteyn, can continue to spellbind audiences into their 50s. Certainly, Kain’s colleagues agree that her mastery of her art has never been greater. Said Franca: “She is maturing like wine. She keeps getting better.” And Kain has always been a remarkably fine vintage.