Ballet Stars
Xiao Nan Yu in company class. Aaron Vincent, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada.

On June 22, National Ballet of Canada principal Xiao Nan Yu will retire from the stage after 22 years with the company. Originally from Dalian, China, Yu studied at the Shen Yang School of Dance and the Beijing Dance Academy before coming to Canada's National Ballet School at age 17. She joined the National Ballet of Canada less than two years later, and was promoted to principal in 2001.

"She is a supreme dance actress with an innate ability to bring the audience into her world," says NBoC artistic director Karen Kain. "Nan has always brought such a calm confidence into the studio and has been a role model for so many dancers I will miss her generosity both inside the studio and out." We spoke with Yu as she prepared for her final week of performances. She opened up about her initial culture shock upon moving to Toronto, her thoughts on artistry and why she chose Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow as her final role.

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Ballet Stars

Karen Kain is internationally renowned as a performer and as the National Ballet of Canada's artistic director. The former NBoC principal always carries herself with the grace and sophistication of a true leader. However, in this 1976 clip from Giselle, the distinguished ballerina is convincingly naïve and bewildered in her interpretation of the mad scene.



Kain conveys Giselle's innocence at the start of the scene with pure, unaffected gestures and facial expressions. Then, after Albrecht betrays her, her eyes stare unfocused into the distance as if she's in a trance. Although this scene is mostly acting, Kain dances dreamily to the musical motif at 5:30 and conceals her technical strength in order to show the character's frailty. It takes a true ballerina to perform this heartbreaking and beautiful role, and with performances like this and her lifelong commitment to the art form, Kain proves that she is an extraordinary one. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

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Julie Kent working with students at ABT. Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.

It's International Women's Day! To celebrate, we combed our archives for career advice and wisdom from some of the women currently directing ballet companies. Let their words empower and inspire you, today and always.

"You don't become a ballerina in one show or one season or one week. It's a journey. You work towards the goal and the harder you work, the bar raises. And then over a period of time, you're able to look back to see where you came from."

–The Washington Ballet's Julie Kent on the importance of patience

Lourdes Lopez teaching at the MCB School, photo by Daniel Azoulay

"You have to embrace new technology. It's a no-brainer, but you have to figure out how to use it. People think of ballet as fragile. I completely disagree. I think it's actually very powerful in terms of a transformational art form. Look how long it's survived with all the issues and agendas—political, scientific, social and economic. I'm a believer that you can live-stream dance into a bar or restaurant or stadium or a parking lot. It's not going to diminish the art form.

-Miami City Ballet's Lourdes Lopez on the future of ballet

“The ideal is something you use as your compass, but it's not actually possible to attain...Polish your strengths so they're the center of attention, and know what can and can't be done to change your weaknesses."

–Dance Theatre of Harlem's Virginia Johnson on fighting perfectionism and gaining confidence

Virginia Johnson at DTH, photo by Quinn Wharton

"It's not just about being too big. I don't want rail-thin people, either. Trying to keep women like little girls is a power move, albeit sometimes not a conscious one. I don't want a company where everyone is the same height or has the same instep. I don't think that's very American."

–Ballet Memphis' Dorothy Gunther Pugh on body type in the ballet world

“I look for commitment and openness. You can keep learning through your entire career, and there are always new ways of looking at things...The spirit of a dancer and their versatility is more important to me than whether they have perfect legs and feet."

–National Ballet of Canada's Karen Kain on what she looks for in dancers

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There’s something to be said for onstage chemistry—you certainly can’t believe in a love story without sensing it between the lovers! In this clip from the National Ballet of Canada’s 1987 televised performance of The Merry Widow, the electricity between the wealthy widow Hanna, played by former NBoC principal Karen Kain, and Count Danilo, danced by then American Ballet Theatre principal John Meehan, is palpable. The two characters, former lovers, find themselves thrust together after many years apart as part of an elaborate marriage scheme. And in Kain and Meehan’s playful performance, you sense their shared history—the way he arches his brow and holds his hand out expectantly for her, the way she side-glances knowingly and teasingly resists. With exuberant tosses of the head, they let their guards down, their flirtations betraying past hurts and signaling the reconciliation to come. It’s obvious these two are still in love, all thanks to Kain and Meehan’s authentic connection.

 

Since leaving the stage, both have made huge contributions to the ballet world. Kain, long understood as one of NBoC’s biggest stars, now leads from the front of the studio as the company’s artistic director. Meanwhile, Meehan went on to direct the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company and Hong Kong Ballet, and now serves as chair of Vassar College’s Dance Department. Happy #TBT!

Ballet Stars
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.

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Ballet Careers

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.”

Swans, pluck those feathers! Wilis, stow those veils! Dancers everywhere, update those personal websites! Embrace every challenge the dance world throws your way and look for a few more—your future may depend on it.


Such is the consensus of the distinguished array of dancers, company directors and teachers Pointe asked about the prospects for the ballerina in today’s highly competitive and information-saturated dance world. How is the pathway to success different from what it was a generation ago? What does it take to be a ballerina in the 21st century?


First, let’s define our terms. Nobody does that better than Ontario-born Karen Kain, who joined The National Ballet of Canada in 1969, rapidly advanced to principal dancer, retired from the stage with laurels in 1997, and eight years later, became NBC’s artistic director.


“Some people think anyone who puts on a pointe shoe is a ballerina,” says Kain. “But when I use the term, I’m thinking of someone who has extraordinary individuality, a hugely refined and articulate body, humility, musicality, the strength and stamina of a major athlete, and the histrionic ability of a major actor. On top of that, a ballerina needs an attribute that is more difficult to describe. It’s a commitment and passion for the artform, a capacity to work harder than most human beings, the concentration to put aside other things.”


Kain considers the demands made upon her own company typical of the global ballet scene. “Today, technique and stamina are pushed to the limits. It’s all much more demanding than it was for me. We only have the budget for five principal women. So the really useful ballerinas in the 21st century will be more than great Giselles. They are here to dance a variety of different works.”


In some respects, Kain might be describing New York City Ballet’s much lauded principal Wendy Whelan, who, in her 25 years with the company, has gradually augmented her core Balanchine/Robbins repertoire. Her prescription for ballerina stardom?


“I think today that you’ve got to be open to all the languages thrown at you by newer choreographers,” says Whelan. Her resumé now includes dances by Forsythe, Ratmansky, Dove, Tharp and Wheeldon. “Their work isn’t necessarily ballet-based, but they want you to come up with a new way of doing a modern step in pointe shoes. We don’t even have a word for these steps; because they’re not in a book, you must do the exploring.


“I recall that when we were rehearsing Russian Seasons, Ratmansky told me not to be afraid to be melodramatic,” Whelan continues. “I didn’t do that sort of thing, so he really challenged me. It makes you trust your creativity a bit more; self-knowledge always adds to the ballets we know.”


Diversity is also the key to the success of the Kirov Ballet’s bewitching Diana Vishneva. Few ballerinas have evolved from their training as much as this illustrious graduate of the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg.


“Of course, Vaganova was great,” Vishneva says. “But the Western school has been more important in forming my career. I wouldn’t be where I am now without it. Still, I will never forget my roots in Russia.” Which may explain why she dispatches Kitri with the same flair with which she delivers Balanchine’s “Rubies” or a creation by Momix artistic director Moses Pendleton.


Vishneva is a child of the electronic age. She maintains a website (www.dianavishneva.ru) and operates a chat room in which she “always” responds to her admirers’ questions. You can catch many of Vishneva’s performances online and she notes that they inspire fans to buy tickets for her theatrical appearances.


Drew Jacoby’s history differs significantly from Vishneva’s. Her elongated line and charisma first attracted attention in Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet. She now dances with Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, and is currently guesting with the Dutch National Ballet. She offers some refreshing insights on the contemporary ballerina.


“What a great dancer needs now is zero insecurity,” Jacoby says. “Those I enjoy watching make you believe them because they are not afraid. They convince you that what they are doing is important. They embody coolness,” she says, and some would find it an apt description of her own style. “I don’t mean cocky virtuosity,” she adds, “I just mean being comfortable in your own skin. I guess what is really required is intelligence and character—on top of the obvious technical facility. Today’s ballerina needs a grasp of the weight of the art.”


There is art, and then, there is art. Ashley Wheater, the artistic director of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet since 2007, measures greatness in a ballerina by the artistic standards propounded by his company’s founder. “When Robert Joffrey started it all, he wanted really strong, well-trained, fully committed women. His legacy is worth keeping alive. These are the dancers who will go to the end of their profession to find out what it means to immerse yourself in a role. It’s an American aesthetic for an American company.”


Veteran teacher David Howard takes a different view, finding the studied eclecticism of most repertoires and the anonymity of technically superior dancing are factors hindering distinction. He can’t resist reminiscing about his era at The Royal Ballet, when giants like Margot Fonteyn bouréed across the boards. He recalls the Bolshoi’s brilliant, rebellious Maya Plisetskaya, who fought against the conventions of the Soviet system. He cites France’s unclassifiable and uncompromising Sylvie Guillem. He charges artistic directors with finding their heirs.


“We will have ballerinas if dancers like this come along and companies notice them,” says Howard. “Because they’re a headache, companies don’t promote them, but they should. A great and distinctive ballerina like Maya Plisetskaya had a different kind of energy; she would be fired today.


“But,” Howard continues, “dancers are still inspired and still get out there and try their very best. And through them, the artform will change. In a way, I’m optimistic.”

Allan Ulrich is chief critic for voiceofdance.com, and contributes to a variety of American and international publications.

Principal dancer Heather Ogden remembers being called into the studio in May with her colleagues and hearing the announcement that James Kudelka would step down as artistic director on June 30, 2005. “We were stunned that James was leaving,” she recalls, “but almost immediately, everyone was speculating that Karen Kain would be his successor. She had clearly been groomed for the job and was certainly the popular choice. She also understands how this company works, from the bottom to the top, which is a big advantage.”

In fact, Kain was identified as the top candidate for the job long before she was offered the position. “Like many corporations, NBC had in place a written succession plan for senior leadership of the company,” explains David Banks, chair of the board of directors. “The plan singled out potential candidates and was designed to help the formal work of a selection committee, should the need arise. Karen headed the list as possible artistic director. After James’ resignation, we had to decide whether we should conduct a proper search or appoint Karen.”

Jim Pitblado, a past chair of both the NBC board and foundation, was given charge of the succession planning committee. During an intense three-week period, he and his four colleagues conducted a wide-ranging survey of NBC stakeholders, both inside and outside the company, in Canada and abroad.

“Karen’s name kept coming up,” he says. “What really surprised us is that no negative facts of any consequence were mentioned about her. You’d think that over a 30-year career, she might have rubbed someone the wrong way, but not Karen.”

In her former life, Kain had a glittering career as NBC’s prima ballerina and was an international ballet superstar. Penelope Doob, who is head of the dance department at York University and helped Kain write her autobiography, Movement Never Lies, points to the former ballerina as one of the most beloved and recognized cultural icons in Canada, a rare tribute for dance in the starry climes usually reserved for sports figures or rock stars.

After retiring as a dancer, Kain became an artist in residence with NBC in 1997. Two years later, she became artistic associate, which made her an integral part of the top managerial team. Nonetheless, she did not find out until after the fact that she had been identified as the top candidate to succeed Kudelka.

Equally surprising is that she never saw her job as artistic associate as an apprenticeship. Rather, she viewed herself as being part of Kudelka’s support team. It was not until quite recently that she realized these last eight years were on-the-job training for artistic director and began to see herself in that role. Now she is taking on one of the most challenging cultural jobs in Canada.

For her part, Kain is in no hurry to put her own stamp on NBC. “I have a huge respect for the company’s heritage, and I plan to build on that,” she says. “I served under every artistic director, and I appreciate what each brought to the company. The mandate that founder Celia Franca put in place is still valid. Our benchmark is the classical repertory, support for Canadian choreographers and bringing in masterworks of our time.”

But the change in command comes at a difficult time for the company, which has been suffering financially. Kain is reluctant to give a precise number concerning box-office losses, but the 2004-05 season was not a good one for NBC. She uses the word “challenging” to describe the audience drop-off and adds that necessity dictates that she proceed with caution her first few years. “We always budget very conservatively and never plan for full houses, but we’re nervous right now over this nasty surprise and really have to analyze what happened. Are we moving too fast with unfamiliar work? Is the audience drop-off specific to us or to all dance companies? Sadly, people who came to the shows loved them, but not enough of them came. If you asked me to sum up my vision, it is survival.”

Kain is pinning some hopes for renewal on the move to Toronto’s new opera house, the Four Seasons Centre for the Arts, in September 2006. She talks glowingly about the closeness of the stage to the audience, even at the back of the hall. “The European horseshoe shape goes up rather than out,” she explains, “so there are very few bad seats and wonderful acoustics. Everyone can experience the immediate and visceral passion of dance. I hope the new opera house will seduce people into the theater and that we will delight them or even surprise them when they are there.”

The move to the new house will be costly, though, primarily because the company will need more dancers to accommodate the increased number of performances. Currently the company has 60 dancers, including apprentices, but the ideal is 70. Thus, in a time of audience malaise and donor fatigue, the new director has to find the resources for the necessary company growth.

Enlarging the endowment may be one answer. NBC’s endowment is about $11 million, but in comparison to a few U.S. companies with endowments in the tens of millions, this is pitifully small. Part of the problem, according to Kain, is that American businesses and individuals get a complete tax write-off for their donations. In Canada, it is only a 50 percent tax benefit. “We have to convince governments to be smarter about donations to not-for-profit arts organizations to encourage philanthropy,” says Kain.

Since the recession of the late 1980s, NBC has never had, Pitblado points out, “a year of fat on the bones.” Thus, in the current rough times of government funding cutbacks and the fierce competition for corporate dollars, being artistic director of NBC is not without its pitfalls. All see Kain, however, as having the goods to take on the job, and there is, apparently, a steel magnolia that lurks within her charm.

In fact, the word that comes up most frequently to describe her personality is “tough.” NBC principal dancer Jennifer Fournier sees Kain as someone who cares passionately about what happens on the stage. “She is brutally honest and a person who does not settle for mediocrity. You can’t get to the top of the dance world without handling the truth, and that will carry over to her decisions as an artistic director.”

At the same time, Fournier feels that Kain’s greatest strength is her open-door, nurturing attitude. “Karen is very intelligent and emotionally in tune with how things impact dancers,” she adds. “She is also open to new ideas. She never stopped growing as an artist, and she won’t stop growing as an administrator.”

Kain points out that NBC is not a company she is stepping into as part of a career move, but one that she has been a part of her entire professional life. Acting as artistic director will be a labor of love. Nonetheless, she is not rubber-stamping what has gone before, and one picks up a flash of steel when she talks about
raising standards. “When I’m watching from the audience, it is with the eyes of someone who has seen the best in the major dance centers of the world,” Kain says. “Sometimes we are there, and sometimes not. I want us at the top of our game for every performance. I’m ready to take on the challenge.”


Paula Citron is a Toronto-based arts journalist.

At the age of 53, when most dancers have long since exited the dance world, Karen Kain is the new artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada. As one of Canada’s best-loved ballerinas for more than 30 years, she could happily retire into the sunset, but as she says, “Everything I’ve ever learned or accomplished has led to my accepting this position. I want to make a contribution in this stage of my life and not rest on past glories.”

And those accomplishments are numerous. Five universities have given her honorary degrees; she has received the highest civilian honors awarded by the Canadian government; and she has her own star on Canada’s Walk of Fame. That’s not even mentioning her achievements as a ballerina.

Born in Hamilton, Ontario, she attended The National Ballet School in Toronto. At 5-foot-7, the young dancer towered in pointe shoes, and NBC’s founder and artistic director at the time, Celia Franca, was reluctant to take another tall girl into the company. Kain’s talent, however, won Franca over, and she entered NBC in 1969. After a sizzling debut as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake in 1971, she was promoted to principal dancer.

In 1973, Kain won a silver medal at Moscow’s International Ballet Competition and, with partner Frank Augustyn, was also awarded a special prize for best pas de deux. Augustyn, and later Rex Harrington, were her most frequent partners at NBC. Internationally, it was the great Rudolf Nureyev who partnered her most often, and they appeared together all around the world. As a ballerina, her brilliance as a dancer lay in her ability to mask technique with character. She made dancing look easy, while touching the soul of the viewer with the radiance of her storytelling. Fortunately, the Canadian Broadcasting Company filmed many of her NBC performances.

During her career, Kain performed every major role in the classical repertoire, as well as premiering many new works, particularly those by James Kudelka, NBC’s most recent artistic director. Kain could have joined any company in the world at the peak of her powers, but chose to stay with NBC, often referring to an emotional attachment to the company and the importance of a home base. But more to the point, discerning artistic directors gave Kain extended leaves of absence so she could quench her artistic thirst at major companies around the world, including Roland Petit’s Le Ballet National de Marseille and Eliot Feld Ballet. 

In a career of highlights, Kain considers two that occurred in the twilight of her career the most memorable. In 1994, her 25th anniversary year with NBC, she gave up Swan Lake, the last of the classical works in her repertoire. To sweeten the loss, Anthony Dowell, then artistic director of The Royal Ballet, agreed to give the company Ashton’s last masterpiece, A Month in the Country. Kain had coveted the role of Natalia Petrovna, a woman who falls in love with her son’s tutor, after seeing fellow Canadian Lynn Seymour perform it in 1976. The second gift was The Actress, Kudelka’s brilliant original work for Kain that details the life of an aging star and her complex relationship with her colleagues.

After leaving the stage, she became artist in residence with NBC, which, in the early stages, involved fundraising and liaison with patrons and the corporate elite. When her talents as an organizer and administrator became evident, the position was expanded to artistic associate and became part of the senior artistic staff, coaching dancers, staging ballets and advising Kudelka on casting and programming decisions.

“I loved learning the complexities of a large ballet company, particularly the administration side that a dancer rarely sees,” says Kain.  “I never realized the details that go into mounting a ballet season, for example. In fact, it was during these last few years on senior staff that I began to think that I would like to become an artistic director.”

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