The National Ballet of Canada's Karen Kain

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 plannedSleeping 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.”

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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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Photo by Theo Kossenas, Courtesy The Washington Ballet

You made a deal with your mom to take ballet classes in exchange for a ride to tryouts for the football team. How did that work?
I thought that I would take ballet for a couple months, become a master and then leave that alone and concentrate on football. Ballet had other ideas, which perplexed me, and ultimately, I think, made me fall in love with it.

How is The Washington Ballet evolving under Julie Kent's leadership?
It's still early, but I think that the company is growing stronger classically. And we have Julie, Victor Barbee, Xiomara Reyes and Rinat Imaev—a great team of people who are giving their input and expertise, which is quite helpful.

Mack in 'Swan Lake.' Photo by Theo Kossenas

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Summer Study Advice
Summer intensive students at the School of American Ballet. Photo by Rosalie O'Conner, Courtesy SAB.

As a young student, Shea McAdoo's classes at the Master Ballet Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona, were “strict, straightforward, very classical and purely Vaganova." She appreciated the Russian rigor and precision, but when she was accepted to the School of American Ballet's summer course at 13, she leapt at the chance to learn something new. The vastly different emphasis on Balanchine technique at SAB was illuminating: “It changed my whole way of thinking about musicality and accents. I'd never known there were so many ways to do a tendu! And the épaulement—I loved how they talked about light hitting your face, tilting your chin to show off your diamond earring."

McAdoo's experience was transformative, even when she returned home. “Of course, I lowered my arms back down in second and didn't cross my wrists," she says, “but there were stylistic choices I brought back with me." Today, as an apprentice with Oregon Ballet Theatre rehearsing Balanchine's Serenade, she credits her ease with the ballet's fluid port de bras to her summer at SAB.

Learning about ballet's various styles and techniques is an important part of a dancer's development. With summer intensive auditions approaching, it's a perfect time to consider broadening your training. While it can be initially confusing, immersing yourself in a style outside your comfort zone can be eye-opening and influential for your future training and career. And the benefits of diversifying your training can last beyond a single summer.


Shea McAdoo in OBT's production of "Paquita." Photo by James McGrew.

Let Curiosity Be Your Guide

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Summer Study Advice
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As summer intensive audition season starts up, I've been reminiscing about my own experience as a young dancer—way back in 1993—and how challenging it was to navigate. In fact, I think it's safe to say that my first summer program audition was a complete disaster.

I was almost 16—a little late by some standards—and was still pretty clueless as to how I compared to others outside my hometown. That weighed heavily on my mind as my parents and I made the hour-long drive to Milwaukee. The audition was for a school in Pennsylvania, and as I scanned the big-city studio, my mind slipped into exaggerated teenage self-consciousness. Dancers lined the barres stretching, showing off their flexibility as if doing some sort of war ritual. Many were chatting in groups, wearing trendy warm-up jumpers and donning perfectly shellacked buns. I tried to act like I knew what I was doing, but inside I was a wreck.

The teacher clapped his hands together to begin class. He was fast-paced, no-nonsense and not one for smiles. During pliés, he stopped in front of me with his clipboard as I emerged from a cambré back. He looked me up and down, frowned and kept going. I, of course, freaked out—what did that mean? I still had an entire hour and a half left of class to prove I was still capable, but instead I completely lost my concentration. I just couldn't shake that frown. I forgot combinations and even started with the wrong foot in front a few times in center. By jumps, the adjudicators had stopped watching me altogether. Needless to say, I spent the majority of the ride home trying not to cry.

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via YouTube

It's finally the weekend, and we're celebrating the best way we know how—a new ballet video. Juliet Doherty (who trained with San Francisco Ballet and Master Ballet Academy, and is set to star in the dance film, On Pointe), teamed up with Cartoon Network for her latest project.

"Cartoon Network contacted me about their show, Steven Universe, which was coming out with a new vinyl album of the soundtrack of the show," Doherty shared with Pointe. "They told me about one of the show's main characters named, Pearl, who is a strong-willed character but has the grace inspired by a ballerina."

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Videos
Mr. Jeremy FIsher, from Sir Frederick Ashton's "The Tales of Beatrix Potter."

Animal roles might not typically be what dancers dream of performing…but they're oh-so-fun to watch. You can't help falling under their spell (and perhaps aspiring to dance one someday). Here's a round-up of some of our favorite furry and feathered roles.

Bunny Hop

Run. Dance in a circle. Pretend to be a rabbit. It might sound like a creative movement combo, but don't let that fool you. The role of Peter Rabbit in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Tales of Beatrix Potter requires fierce technique—not to mention the ability to project personality while wearing an animal head and fur suit.


Four-Legged Interlude

Who do you turn to for halftime entertainment during a quartet of fairy variations? Dancing lizards, mice and a frog of course! This charming quintet of creatures light up the stage in David Bintley's Cinderella.

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