Ballet Stars

Canada Goes Glam: Karen Kain's New National Ballet

NBC's Chelsy Meiss and Jenna Savella in costumes for Crystal Pite's "Emergence." Photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

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.


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.


Meiss, Savella and McGee Maddox. Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

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.


Savella. Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

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


Maddox. Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

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


Meiss. Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

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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