This is Pointe's December 2014/January 2015 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here.
A rush of energy rippled across the Toronto theater, followed by an ovation that went on for what seemed like an eternity. It was June 12, 2013, and Svetlana Lunkina had just debuted as a guest artist with the National Ballet of Canada, dancing the grand pas de deux from Don Quixote, alongside principal dancer Piotr Stanczyk. It was Lunkina's first performance in months and you could almost sense her elation at finally being back onstage. As Kitri, she exhibited that magical combination of daring attack and exquisite control with sky-high extensions and picture-perfect balances. Even Stanczyk couldn't contain his excitement in the lobby afterwards, saying Lunkina brought out the best in him. “I'd do every single ballet with her if I could," he says.
That night, the question at the top of many people's minds was not if, but when artistic director Karen Kain would offer her a contract. The answer came two months later, when—following 15 years with the Bolshoi—Lunkina accepted a yearlong principal guest contract with NBOC. “Svetlana is an experienced and well-known ballerina, but we didn't know her personally here," says Kain. “We really had to find out whether it was a fit."
The trial year proved successful for both—this season, Lunkina signed on as a full-fledged company member. After a glittering rise and then a sudden, highly publicized departure from the Bolshoi, the 35-year-old Lunkina is renewing her career at NBOC. And although the Canadian company is smaller (72 dancers compared to the Bolshoi's 231) and offers a more contemporary repertoire, she's embracing the opportunity to work with new choreographers and learn new roles. “I'm an artist and I want to develop myself," says Lunkina. “I'm really grateful for this opportunity to grow. It's like a new life, with new emotions."
Lunkina in James Kudelka's "Swan Lake." Photo by Aleksander Antonijevic, Courtesy NBOC.
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."
Prima ballerina turned artistic director Karen Kain. Photo by Sian Richards, Courtesy NBC.