Karen Kain
Canada's Prima Ballerina

KAREN KAIN was eight when she wrote, ,When I grow up I am going to be a ballerina. I will be in Giselle. It will be so much fun being a ballerina." After dancing Giselle, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet, La Sylphide, and hundreds of other classical and contemporary ballets, Karen expressed the same enthusiasm 35 years later in her autobiography, Movement Never Lies (1994). While admitting that a dancer's life means pain, exhaustion, injuries, depression, dieting, and the hardships of touring, she called such drawbacks "negligible compared to the joys ofcreating a new role or learning an established classic and then out on the stage and performing, and the older I get, the more I relish it all."

A Canadian treasure, the diving Karen Kain was one of the world's most talented ballerinas during a 25-year career as a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada.  [Photo, courtesy The Toronto Star/Reg Innell]

Audiences, too, have relished Karen who, in a Maclean's 1988 cover story to mark her 20th anniversary with the National Ballet of Canada, was described as "one of the most respected ballerinas in the world and - a living icon in Canada."

Karen's promise to be ballerina was prompted after seeing Celia Franca, the founding director of the National Ballet of Canada, perform in Giselle at Hamilton's Palace Theatre in 1959. Like many children she went to ballet classes at age six to gain poise and discipline, but her love, skill, and dedication to dancing prompted her parents to continue her lessons until she auditioned for the National Ballet School in Toronto. She enrolled in 1962 and spent the next seven years, often homesick but determined to do well, winning, at 18, an audition to join the corps of the National Ballet.

At the National she blossomed quickly from being a member of the corps to a dance soloist in Mirror Walkers in 1970. This led to a recommendation that she study the dual roles of the Queen and Black Swan in Swan Lake and in January 1971, she danced the two parts for the first time while on tour at Tempe, Arizona.

A year later, Rudolf Nureyev, the famous Russian-born dancer who defected to the West, came to the National to choreograph and dance in a lavish production of Sleeping Beauty in which Kain played the Principal Fairy, and would be Nureyev's partner in a new production of Swan Lake also performed that season.

"Rudolf helped me discover myself," Karen wrote in her autobiography. He taught me the joy and the necessity of a bold, clear, fully committed kind of dancing," adding, "Certainly I would never have reached my own potential cis a dancer without Rudolf." Before the tour was over she also danced the lead role of Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. Nureyev returned the compliment in a Time Magazine interview: "The way she does Aurora," he said, "there is no one like that anywhere."

While Kain also attributes her international stardom to Nureyev, her first major step in that direction occurred when she and Frank Augustyn, also from Hamilton and a graduate of the National Ballet School, both went to the Moscow International Ballet Festival in May 1973. There she shared a silver medal for her solo performance. Together, the pair beat an elite field of dancers to take top honours in duet ensemble work for their performance of the Bluebird Pas de Deux from Sleeping Beauty. Tass called them a "a real discovery" who had won the sympathies of the Moscow audiences.

After that, the 1970s were a whirlwind of performances especially for Karen. Dubbed the "goldust twins" after their winning performances in Russia, audiences at home wanted to see them together, forcing the National to change its policy of not announcing who would dance in a performance to advertising their forthcoming appearances.

Karen Kain in The Actress, choreographed by James Kudelka to celebrate her 25th anniversary season with the National Ballet in 7994. [Photo, courtesy The National Ballet of Canada]

At the same time she was under pressure to dance in Europe and elsewhere. In Moscow she met Roland Petit, the renowned French dancer and choreographer who persuaded her to be a guest artist with his company, Le Ballet National de Marseille. Nureyev also pressed her into being his partner for appearances in Vienna, London, Washington, San Francisco, and a tour of Australia. She danced Giselle with the Bolshoi Ballet on a tour in Russia in 1977, and was also invited to perform in CBC television shows, the first of which, made on a cement floor, caused her considerable pain.

That, however, was minor compared to the turmoil and burnout she suffered as a person by the late 1970s. Always a perfectionist, she, and the critics, realized her performances were slipping, Anna Kisselgoff of the New York Times writing in 1979, "Miss Kain, once so radiant as Aurora now offered a sedate princess." Following a poor performance at Covent Garden in London, England, later that year, Karen quit dancing, sought help and through psychotherapy, learned "to shift from depending on having other people believe in me to learning to believe in myself."

By 1980, she resumed dancing with the National and for the next 15 years concentrated on performing with that company in Canada and on tour, with only occasional appearances in other countries including both China and Italy. By her 20th anniversary with the National in 1989, she had given up dancing some ballets, such as Coppelia, but continued dancing some favourites as Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, performing the later until the spring of 1994, her 25th anniversary year with the National, and giving a final performance of Swan Lake that fall.

Other ballets to reflect Kain's maturity both as a dancer and actress were created for her in the early 1990s and to celebrate her 25th anniversary, the National obtained permission to be the first outside of Britain's Royal Ballet to perform Sir Frederick Ashton's A Day in the Country that was first performed in London in 1976 by another Canadian born dancer, Lynn Seymour. The Royal had carefully retained its possession of the ballet until Karen indicated her interest in dancing the role of Natalia Petrovna which she considered one of the greatest ever created for a mature ballerina. On May 3, 1995, she performed it before yet another admiring audience and critical acclaim at Toronto's O'Keefe Centre.

After marking her second decade with the National in 1989, Karen was often asked how long she would continue dancing. She ended the speculation in February 1996, when she announced her retirement. She will, however, continue being active in ballet circles. One of her special interests will be the Dance Transition Centre, founded in Toronto in 1985, to help dancers adjust when "they withdraw from the stage." Karen was elected its first president and shortly before her autobiography was published in 1994, wrote, I recently accepted the title of 'president for life' and I consider my commitment to the Centre permanent."

Mel James