It is the last dance. She plays a hyperbolic version of herself, a prima ballerina who is passed through the arms of lovers and strangers. To the sound of Chopin, partners come and go as she glides from dance floor to dressing room—an onstage boudoir—her eyes searching for identity between the blur of movement and the stillness of the mirror. In the end, she finds it. Shedding the white tulle, the frills of the trade, the ballerina returns to the stage in red velvet—a bold declaration of a dress that says this woman is finally on her own, and in charge.
The dancer is Karen Kain. The dance is The Actress, created for her in 1994 by James Kudelka, now artistic director of the National Ballet, and it is the swan song for her seven-city farewell tour, which opened in Toronto last month and ends in Winnipeg on Oct. 4. At 46,
Canada’s queen of dance is finally retiring after 28 years on stage. Last week, in the renovated 1840s farmhouse that she shares with actor Ross Petty and two cats in suburban Toronto (they have no children), Kain reflected on her past, and her future.
The house is overflowing with bouquets from the tour’s opening night. More flowers bloom outside, in the garden that is her husband’s pride and joy. Kain sits erect at the kitchen table in blue jeans and a white shirt. She looks radically thin, her five-foot, seven-inch frame trimmed to a dancing weight of 115 lb. After the tour, she looks forward to eating what she likes, and to “getting out of bed without feeling 150 years old.” The morning after a performance, she says, “Ross can tell by the way I come down the stairs how hard I worked—crash, crash, because my ankles aren’t working. There’s a lot of wear and tear on this old body. Yesterday, I spent two and a half hours in physio. And I put my feet in ice buckets after the show—a lot of dancers do that, dancers half my age.” But Kain will miss dancing. “I love to perform,” she says. “It only took me 20 years to get past being terrified all the time.” She has taken some flak for the prolonged fanfare around her retirement. “I don’t think it’s fair,” she says. “I had this wonderful opportunity to go out with a bang. I thought, Who could be so lucky?’ ” There is an arc in every dancer’s life. ‘When you’re young, it’s all about adrenaline and showing off. And just when you really begin to understand what you’re doing onstage, you start to wane on the physical side. I’ve been incredibly lucky—I’ve seen so many dancers injured to the point where they can’t go on nearly as long as I have. Or else they lose interest.” It was Rudolf Nureyev who showed Kain how to dance with more than her body, who forced her to look him in the eye when they first performed together, in a 1972 production of Swan Lake. She says: “He made me realize the importance of real contact—real people connecting, not just making pretty shapes.” Nureyev, touring with her in North America and Europe, helped lift Kain to international stardom, and eventually urged her to aban-
Canada's prima ballerina ends her 28-year career
don Canada. “He felt this was not a country that was concerned about the arts,” says Kain, who was born in Hamilton. “Elsewhere I was treated with much more respect, whereas I felt taken for granted here—the whole ultrademocratic thing drove me crazy. I did think, when Rudolf was trying to get me to Europe, that I should have done it. But I wanted to have my life here. It’s only in the last four or five years that I’ve known I made the right decision.”
In Canada, of course, she found her share of inspiring partners, from Frank Augustyn to Rex Harrington. “With Frank,” she says, “there was a period of time when we were riding a wave—we were so synchronized in our abilities and our goals. The chemistry was just there. We didn’t have to manufacture it.”
Kain will soon have more time to devote to the chemistry of her 14-year marriage. She and Petty are planning a Mediterranean cruise, and she looks forward to a more retiring life. “I don’t like being a public figure,” she says. “I don’t like people noticing me, except when I’m onstage.” Kain intends to teach and coach, and the idea of acting has crossed her mind. Although she says “it’s not part of my plan—I don’t have the training,” she admits that there may be a part for her close to home, in a film script being developed by her husband. Titled The Case of the Nutty Nutcracker, it is a comic mystery about a plot to murder the Sugar Plum Fairy—a prima ballerina who promises to retire, then changes her mind.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.