Karen Kain: The First Lady of Ballet
In announcing her 2021 departure from the National Ballet of Canada, she leaves behind a legacy of artistic interpretation and inspiration.
Rarely in arts does one individual become so acclaimed that their very name becomes synonymous with their chosen art form. One such individual is Karen Kain, known worldwide as Canada’s prima ballerina, winning international accolades in Moscow, New York, Paris and London not only for her abilities as a dancer, but also her leadership skills and artistic imagination. Her impact will be felt long past her retirement as artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada in January 2021.
These considerable professional heights and accomplishments were probably not in the mind of Kain’s mother when she enrolled her young daughter in ballet training because she believed it would improve young Kain’s discipline, poise and postural alignment.
Upon the family’s move to Mississauga, Ont., from Ancaster, Ont., to be closer to Toronto when Kain was 11 years old, she began training with Canada’s National Ballet School, the country’s pre-eminent ballet school. After graduating in 1969, Kain received the high honour of being invited to join the National Ballet of Canada.
Kain became a principal dancer in 1971 and went on to a distinguished career that included international guest performances with such companies as the Paris Opera Ballet, Roland Petit’s Ballet National de Marseille, the Bolshoi Ballet, the London Festival Ballet and the Hamburg Ballet.
During her outstanding career, she developed a close creative partnership with Rudolf Nureyev and often performed with him. But perhaps the most significant accomplishment in her career, until her retirement from professional dancing in 1997, was her impact on the art form.
Kain’s dancing was transformational for ballet in Canada. Her abilities, artistic interpretations of pieces and palpable joy in her work broke down old barriers between ballet and its audiences, to the point where ballet became “cool,” and Kain was its superstar.
She brought it from the rattling of expensive jewelry to rapturous shouts and standing ovations from her audiences, single-handedly influencing thousands of young girls and boys to join local ballet schools. Perhaps that will be her greatest legacy. Kain’s popularity moved ballet into pop culture. She was even a subject of the portraits of Andy Warhol in 1980. If the average person could name Picasso as a painter or Pavarotti as an opera singer, they could name Karen Kain as a ballet dancer.
Her endurance during an almost 30-year professional career was legendary, especially in an activity recognized as one of the world’s most athletic and physically taxing, where every muscle must work in perfect co-ordination for an entire ballet. Even Tom Brady only plays half the game.
Kain had an invaluable impact, both as an artist and a leader, on the National Ballet, as well as the arts in Canada and around the globe, where the National Ballet is now in demand around the world and recognized as being among the finest companies. She has led the National Ballet on 23 international tours and 29 Canadian tours.
Becoming artistic director in 2005, Kain commissioned, co-commissioned and co-produced 24 new works from international and Canadian choreographers. Under Kain’s leadership, the National Ballet achieved financial success with 10 years of operating surpluses and the completion of the $104-million Soaring Campaign, the largest fundraising campaign in its history.
“Karen Kain is an extraordinary artist and an extraordinary leader,” says Cornell Wright, board chair of the National Ballet of Canada. “This great organization has been so fortunate to benefit from her brilliance for the past 50 years. Karen continues to inspire excellence in all who have the privilege to work with her, and I am so pleased and grateful she has agreed to continue her connection with the company as artistic director emeritus.”
Kain has received many awards throughout her career, testaments to her accomplishments both as an artist and advocate for the arts. She is a Companion of the Order of Canada, was awarded the Order of Ontario, was the first Canadian recipient of the Cartier Lifetime Achievement Award and was named an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters by the Government of France.
In 1997, she was honoured with a Canadian Governor General’s Performing Arts National Arts Centre Award and received a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement in 2002. The Karen Kain School of the Arts officially opened in 2008 as a tribute to her ongoing contributions to cultural life in Canada, and in 2019, Kain was the first Canadian to be honoured with the prestigious Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award, the highest honour given by the Royal Academy of Dance.
“I feel so fortunate to have had this wonderful company as my artistic home for 50 years,” says Kain. “Being artistic director has been the greatest honour of my life, and I know I leave a financially stable company with the very best dancers in the world.”
In art, there is a tradition to go out leaving your audiences wanting more. Karen Kain, true to her character and abilities, is different. When she leaves us, Canada and the world all know she always gave us everything.