On a sunny fall morning, in a large, bright studio filled with Tchaikovsky, Karen Kain sits intently watching rehearsal. Now in her fifth season as artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, Kain has an eagle eye. When it comes to the company’s opulent production of Rudolf Nureyev’s Sleeping Beauty, the Russian classic that catapulted her to international stardom more than 35 years ago, Kain knows the importance of style, detail and nuance—and she’s not willing to settle for anything less than excellence.
Meanwhile, in another studio, it’s the music of a leading contemporary Russian composer that’s driving the rehearsal. Aszure Barton has chosen Lera Auerbach’s re-arrangement of Dialogues on Stabat Mater (after Pergolesi) for Watch Her, the Canadian-born choreographer’s first work for NBC, the company with which Barton performed as a young dancer.
Although often perceived from abroad as a troupe dedicated to the full-length classics, NBC’s reality is very different. Alongside its impressive repertoire of 19th-century full-lengths and 20th-century masterworks, NBC has a long history of commissioning works from both established and emerging choreographers. In a daring program last season, it presented an evening of all new works by young Canadian choreographers. Says Kain: “This institution exists to develop talent.”
During the artistic directorship of Canadian choreographer James Kudelka, 1996–2005, there were times it seemed that new work—a lot of it by Kudelka himself—took precedence. Kain has made no secret of her belief that the company, as well as the dancers, had tilted too far from classicism.
“I look for incredibly versatile dancers, but they need to have a solid classical foundation,” she says. “I also look for commitment and openness. You can keep learning through your entire career, and there are always new ways of looking at things.”
Interestingly, Kain is not so insistent on the perfect body: “If a dancer has a kind of magic, I can forgive a less-than-perfect physique. The spirit of a dancer and their versatility is more important to me than whether they have perfect legs and feet.”
Although nearly half of NBC’s 60 dancers are Canadian, there is a sizeable U.S. contingent: 10 this season. Some have been hired directly from the U.S. Others, like Providence, Rhode Island–born principal Greta Hodgkinson, trained at Kain’s alma mater, the independently operated National Ballet School of Canada.
Historically, NBS has been a major source of talent for the company, but far from the only one. Kain is emphatic: “I’m interested in the best dancers who want to be here, regardless of where they trained or were born. I’m looking for people with a commitment to what we’re doing.”
And Kain has found such dancers as far afield as Australia, China, Japan, Romania, Russia and South Africa. Some come to Toronto for the company’s annual winter open audition, but Kain is willing to review applications throughout the season. Another entry point is the 10-member YOU dance/RBC Apprentice Programme. (YOU stands for Youth, Outreach and Understanding.) Now in its third season, it is a collaborative enterprise between NBC and NBS. Under the direction of former Dutch National Ballet and New York City Ballet principal Lindsay Fischer, YOU dance aims to bridge the sometimes difficult transition from academy to company, student to professional.
The main company presents an impressive 80 hometown performances each season in Toronto’s elegant new opera house, the 2,000-seat Four Seasons Centre, but tours much less, even within Canada, than it did in the days when Kain was its prima ballerina.
Unlike Montréal’s 35-member Grands Ballets Canadiens and the 24-member Royal Winnipeg Ballet, NBC’s scale makes the cost of touring almost prohibitive. A planned Sleeping Beauty tour of Western Canada scheduled for last September had to be cancelled because of the increased risk at the box office due to the economic climate.
It’s a situation Kain wants to change, although she acknowledges there’s no easy solution. Along with
the cost, there’s also the issue of an increasingly globalized repertoire, which has tended to reduce the distinctiveness, and thus attractiveness to potential presenters, of big classical
ballet companies like NBC.
“Only if you have something unique that no one else has,” says Kain, “by a choreographer everyone wants to see, are you going to get those invitations any more. It’s something that I’m working on.”
Michael Crabb is dance critic of Canada’s The National Post.