There’s nothing quite like the feeling of anticipation in a theater before a curtain rises. Toronto’s cultural elite had gathered one summer night in 2006 to celebrate the National Ballet of Canada’s move into the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, a sleek new contemporary home for the country’s national opera and ballet companies. It was a well-heeled, chatty crowd, but when the curtain rose, a hush fell over the auditorium.

In the middle of the empty stage, dressed in a gown glittering with 3,000 Swarovski crystals, stood Karen Kain. The former prima ballerina paused before making her first speech as NBC’s artistic director in the grand new space. It was a moment that had been long in coming.

Kain knew the challenges she faced when she accepted the top job at NBC a year earlier. At the time, the company faced a deficit of well over a million Canadian dollars, no longer toured internationally and had a repertoire that needed new choreographic energy. “When I got the job,” Kain says, “there were some big priorities I wanted to address. I wanted to raise the level of dancing, widen the repertoire and make the rest of the world know we exist.”

Fast-track to today and NBC has experienced a rebirth. This past year, the company jetéd across borders to Los Angeles, D.C., Saratoga Springs and London. Its repertoire now includes new works by the most in-demand choreographers in the business, including Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon. Critics on both sides of the Atlantic are logging air miles to see the company dance. And there’s no mistaking Kain’s influence on NBC’s revitalization.

Kain grew up in Hamilton, Ontario. She left the industrial steel town at age 11 to attend Canada’s National Ballet School. When she graduated, she joined NBC and quickly caught the eye of artistic director Celia Franca. Within two years she rocketed from corps to principal status. Then Russian superstar Rudolf Nureyev thrust her into the spotlight by making Kain his regular partner when he toured with NBC. The pair performed together around the world to great acclaim. Back at home Kain became a household name, bringing the same kind of rarefied glamour to Canada that Margot Fonteyn had inspired in the UK. Kain received honors, and faced no shortage of offers from other companies, but remained fiercely loyal to Toronto and the company that made her a star. Today, Kain, 62, fondly remembers dancing Nureyev’s Sleeping Beauty at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House on tour with NBC, and working with choreographers like Eliot Feld and Glen Tetley. She is committed to giving her dancers a taste of the international career she once enjoyed.

Upon retiring from dancing in 1997 after 28 years with NBC, Kain spent the next seven years as artist in residence and artistic associate, coaching dancers, fundraising for the company and gaining experience in senior management. In 2004, she also became board chair for the Canada Council for the Arts, an umbrella organization of arts institutions, acting as an ambassador for the arts nationally while lobbying the government for more funding. 

At the time, James Kudelka was both NBC’s artistic director and leading choreographer. During his tenure, the company got a splashy new Kudelka Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Cinderella. But Kudelka felt frustrated by his administrative duties, which only grew as the company prepared to move into the new theater. In 2005, he abruptly stepped down. “This sort of malaise had set in,” recalls Rex Harrington, a former NBC principal dancer, and the company’s current artist in residence. “And I think that Karen coming on board, her connections and her ability to get funding and people interested in touring again, has really brought excitement back.”

One of Kain’s key objectives was to broaden the company’s repertoire, and an invitation went out to Christopher Wheeldon. In 2007 he staged Polyphonia and was impressed by the caliber of the dancers. When Kain asked if he’d be interested in creating an original work for the NBC, she recalls, “He said, I’m doing a full-length for The Royal Ballet based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Would you like to be a part of that?”

The result was a hugely theatrical, ballet-meets-Broadway spectacle. With a price tag of $2 million, it’s one of the biggest productions in the history of NBC. But the total tab was shared with The Royal, which helped lower the economic risk. Alice was NBC’s calling card for its recent L.A. and D.C. tours. “I really think for many companies co-productions are the future,” says Kain. “And it’s okay because once you’ve done it and your public has seen it, it goes to another country for however long and then your public’s ready to see it again in a year or two.” Not surprisingly, a second Wheeldon co-production for NBC and The Royal (based on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale) is already in the works.

While wooing Wheeldon, Kain was also in talks with the other “It” boy choreographer of the ballet world, Alexei Ratmansky. Kain wanted a new work that would open the company’s 60th-anniversary season and be unique to NBC. She boldly asked Ratmansky to choreograph a new Romeo and Juliet. “I knew I had to offer him something that no one else had,” says Kain. “I knew that if I just offered him a short work with us he would say no, because he was committed everywhere.”

The decision raised some eyebrows. The company had been performing John Cranko’s version since 1964, and it was beloved by Toronto audiences. “I thought after 46 years maybe it was time for us to have a fresh take and choreography that demanded more. Because the dancers can do more,” says Kain. It was a calculated risk. But Ratmansky’s version received accolades. In a review of NBC’s London performances, Alastair Macaulay of The New York Times wrote: “Of the six versions I have seen by choreographers alive today, this is much the best.”

Kain is equally committed to developing young Canadian choreographers such as Crystal Pite, Sabrina Matthews and Robert Binet, and has created gutsy triple-bill programs that showcase their often avant-garde works. Canadian choreographer Aszure Barton, whom Kain invited to create a contemporary work, Watch Her, for NBC, found the dancers ready to take risks despite their classicism. “There is something about the way the dancers are trained to bring fantasy and imagination to a role that is like no other place I’ve been,” she says.

It’s easy to see that NBC is a company of individuals. The dancers have strong and consistent technique, and expressive range. Kain has grown the company to 71 dancers (including 10 apprentices) from 64 dancers (including 6 apprentices) when she took over. About half the company trained at Canada’s National Ballet School, while the rest have been recruited from around the world.

 “I like how diverse the dancers are,” Kain says. “They really represent the population at large.” She sometimes scouts for talent when judging competitions like the Prix de Lausanne. The company also holds open auditions for apprentices each year. A first-year corps member makes $861 U.S. per week, with contracts ranging from 46 to 48 weeks per  year.

Kain has fulfilled her initial goals for the company. NBC is on sound financial footing at home, and back in the news internationally. As Barton says, “I believe that National Ballet of Canada is at the forefront of modern ballet companies.” And Kain can take a bow.

Dana Glassman is a dance critic for the National Post.


Jenna Savella
































“My friends thought I was crazy,” says Jenna Savella of her decision to run a half-marathon in Toronto last year. But it was exactly the kind of personal challenge the National Ballet second soloist likes to set herself. “You have to be careful, of course,” she explains. “I didn’t race it. My only goal was to finish.” And she did.

Still, even a half-marathon takes determination. It’s an attribute that has enabled Savella to vault the handicap of a relatively late start in ballet. The only daughter of Filipino immigrant parents, Savella grew up in Surrey, British Columbia. She was 14 before she decided to pursue ballet as a career. She auditioned for the professional training program at Canada’s National Ballet School, but didn’t make the cut. Nevertheless, she was undeterred. “I was frustrated enough to be motivated to keep working and get better,” she says. Savella auditioned again and was accepted, but had a lot of catching up to do. She joined NBC in 2004. Her work ethic came to her aid, as did her willingness to give her utmost to whatever roles came her way. And now there are many, spanning the full classical-to-contemporary spectrum. Says Savella: “I’m really happy with the life I have here.”  —Michael Crabb


McGee Maddox
“I’m stubborn enough to make stuff happen,” says 26-year-old McGee Maddox, explaining what prompted him to join National Ballet of Canada in 2009. He’d been in the corps at Houston Ballet, but after four years felt frustrated. Former company members who’d gone to Toronto told him good things about NBC and he decided to try out. “I was hoping a change of company would be good for me, but knew I couldn’t count on it,” he says now. Happily, it’s turned out well.

Maddox was promoted to second soloist in 2010 and first soloist the following year. While he was still in the corps, Stuttgart Ballet artistic director Reid Anderson cast him in the title role of NBC’s production of John Cranko’s Onegin. “It was my big break,” says Maddox. “It put me on the radar.”

He’s gone on to dance a range of leading dramatic roles, including Kevin O’Day’s Hamlet and—a distinct personal triumph—Alexei Ratmansky’s Romeo and Juliet. At 6' 3" and 195 pounds, there’s no fuss about the Spartanburg, South Carolina–born Maddox’s dancing. He moves with purposeful clarity, connecting steps in ways that make them appear fresh. A guitar player, he’s also instinctively musical. And, like any dancer, Maddox concedes, he’s ambitious. “I’ve always wanted to make a significant impact.” At National Ballet of Canada, he has. — MC


Chelsy Meiss


Second soloist Chelsy Meiss does not let opportunity slip through her fingers, even at the cost of physical pain. Optimistic and ebullient, Meiss, 27, was thrilled when Alexei Ratmansky cast her as one of the Juliets in the inaugural run of his new production of the Prokofiev classic. But then near-disaster struck.

Meiss and partner Brendan Saye accidentally collided during a rehearsal. She tore the deltoid ligament on her right ankle, and had to take time off to recover. It was assumed she was out for the Romeo and Juliet run. But when Meiss had regained enough strength, she and Saye started rehearsing on their own. Finally, they asked Ratmansky to take a look. It remained touch-and-go, but they ended up performing. “I knew it was something that could propel my career,” Meiss explains. “I wasn’t going to give up easily.”

Born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, Meiss trained in a range of styles—she’s still one mean tap dancer—and even considered musical theater before, as a student at the Australian Ballet School, she focused on a ballet career.

Seeking wider horizons, Meiss crossed the Pacific to dance for San Diego Ballet, then moved on to NBC in 2008. With her long, Vaganova-and-Cecchetti-trained body, she’s a natural for the classics yet relishes the demands of contemporary ballet and keeps a tight focus on her work. “I’m really not sure if you can just switch off,” says Meiss, though having a “lovely” architect boyfriend helps limit the out-of-work-hours shop talk. —MC   
















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Angela Sterling, Courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

Clear your schedule now for Monday, January 29th, 2:45PM (EST)/ 11:45AM (PST). Pacific Northwest Ballet will be live-streaming rehearsal from Kent Stowell's Swan Lake, straight from their Seattle, WA-based studios. To psych us up for their on stage performances February 2nd - 11th, PNB is letting us in on their Act II rehearsal.

From the corps of swans to Odette and Prince Siegfried's pas de deux, and the infamous four swans, this rehearsal is not to be missed. You can sign up now for a live-stream reminder on their site. In the meantime, we'll be brushing up on our Cygnets with this PNB sneak peek.

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Lopez in Circus Polka. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB.

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

Keep reading at dancemagazine.com.

Summer Study Advice
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Videos are a great alternative when auditioning in person isn't possible. Here are some general guidelines for making a good impression.

1. Follow directions. Before filming, research what each school you're interested in requires. "It demonstrates your ability to follow instructions, and schools pay attention to that," says Kate Lydon, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre's summer intensives and the ABT Studio Company. "If the guidelines haven't been followed, your video might not be watched the whole way through." You may need to make multiple versions to accommodate different schools.

2. Videos should be no longer than 10 minutes. "Keep it short, simple and direct," advises Philip Neal, dance department chair at The Patel Conservatory and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet. "You have to be sensitive to how much time the director has to sit down and look at it." Barre can be abbreviated, showing only one side per exercise, alternating. Directors will be looking at fundamentals—placement, turnout, leg lines, stability—but don't ignore musicality or movement quality. Make sure music choices match combinations and are correctly synced in the footage.

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Career
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I want to be a professional dancer, but my parents won't listen. They either don't think I can do it (contrary to what my teachers have said) or they won't let me take the necessary steps to become a professional. Please help. —Audrey

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Videos

They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

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Summer Study Advice
The author at 13, rehearsing at her home studio, Ballet Arts Theater, in Endicott, NY. Courtesy McGuire.

This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.

As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.

I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.

My mind filled with questions and self-doubt. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good enough? I figured I must be too fat, too slow, my feet too flat. I had worked so hard. I had wished on every fallen eyelash and dead dandelion in pursuit of my single goal, just to have a three-paragraph form letter conclude that I was a failure. For a while, I let myself wallow in the comfort of my resentment, content to believe that success should have come easily, and that to fall was the same as to fail.

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