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The elegant and refined prima ballerina tells us about her career and inspirations along the way.

Photography by Tom Sandler, Story by Cytlalli Ruiz-Chapman

Having graced stages around the world for decades, with her elegance and charm, Karen Kain has established herself as one of Canada’s leading artistic icons. Although no longer performing, Kain continues to inspire and motivate women across the country.As the artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada and an advocate of the arts in Canada, she has opened the door for many dancers and artists, all the while continuing to put Canada on the map internationally. Despite numerous accolades and accomplishments, the prima ballerina maintains a sense of humility. Here Kain shares some thoughts on her inspirations and challenges. She spoke at the Women of Influence Luncheon Series event in Toronto on April 30, 2010.

What did you share with the audience at Women of Influence?
KK: I decided to touch on challenges and mentors: people that helped me throughout my career, paying tribute to them by giving the reasons as to why they helped me, supported me, educated me and enlightened me. Nobody gets anywhere without a lot of people supporting them.

Who are some of the people who supported you?
KK: My journey starts with my training, so I start with Betty Oliphant, Celia Franca, who was the artistic director of the National Ballet and who also helped found Canada’s National Ballet School, Rudolph Nureyev and Erik Bruhn. These were all people that I worked with and who I learnt a great deal from.They helped me in my career in many different ways, with inspiration but also practical information, giving me opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise have had. James Kudelka, who was the artistic director before me and a choreographer, I had worked with quite a bit. I was also trying to give information about what it’s like to be a performing artist and to be at a ballet company, what the process is. I think a lot of people don’t really know.They only see the performance on stage.They don’t really know the challenges that go along with that. I don’t think anybody really knows what my job is now.

What exactly is your job now?
KK: Well, I’m the artistic director of the company, so I’m responsible for the repertoire. I am responsible for all the choices that we put on stage. I’m also responsible for the choices of the choreographers, working with them on casting. I oversee a very large organization, one that creates sets and costumes.We have a whole orchestra. There are a lot of people, a lot of detail that is involved.

That sounds like a lot of work! Describe the transition from being a dancer to an overseer?
KK: When you are performing, it’s all about your own performance. It’s all about how you contribute to the big picture.You have your contribution and it’s your role in the big production.To be overseeing all of that is like having a bird’s eye perspective, instead of being down on the ground. It’s very different. It takes a long time to understand how it all works. There are a lot of financial challenges to keep it going. There is a lot of fundraising to be done. It’s a very complex job, but it’s a great job, it’s fascinating. If you are trying to keep an organization that you love and that you believe is vital to the city and the country, you have motivation to keep it first of all as excellent as it can possibly be, and as healthy as it can possibly be. As a company that has given me the opportunity to have an incredible career, I feel very motivated to work very hard to keep it strong and healthy.

How have you been able to foster artistic initiatives?
KK: It’s been challenging and frustrating at times,because there always seems to be things that are more important. But I truly believe that if you keep producing something excellent, keep showing it to people and reaching out to people by letting them see what it is you are doing, eventually they understand what it is to see works of art at this level.To see this particular art form, practised at the highest level, people do appreciate it.We have a lot of barriers to people seeing it because it costs a lot to produce. It’s not something that you create and then just sell it. It’s made out of living, breathing human beings that can only do it for a certain amount of time. It is a very temporal art form, so it has to be viewed in that context. It’s fleeting, intangible, but it’s very special and I think that as long as we all keep showing people how wonderful it is, they will get it and appreciate it.

Where do you see Canadian ballet going from here?
KK: It’s progressing with every generation, with every choreographer who is stretching the limits. It is progressing right here, right before our eyes.Anybody who comes to see it can see that the level of technique, the level of virtuosity, the level of inventiveness just continues to grow with every generation. What I would like to see is that the National Ballet of Canada, which is a company that is among the best in the world, be seen more on the world stage. I mean, in my day we got to be seen in New York and in London, but these days (it is too costly to move) a ballet company showing. I think we are one of the most creative companies in the world. We are doing more work and more interesting work that most companies are daring to do. I would like to be able to show that. But that is a very costly undertaking.

What were some of the hardships you experienced, being a woman in your career?
KK: You know there are a lot more men running ballet companies and a lot more men choreographing. I think that it is slowly changing, but it’s still pretty much a man’s world. It’s changing, but women are changing too.They are more confident and boards of directors are more confident in selecting women to take on these roles. I mean, a number of the mentors that I talked about (during my speech) were women. So there have always been women pioneering in the arts. But if you look around the world there are probably four women that run dance companies, and the rest are all men.You will see that there are a lot more women choreographers show. There used to be hardly any. And a number of women that are getting recognition are Canadians and I have invited some of them back to create works for us.They are really talented and really fantastic. So you know it’s changing, the world is changing.

What advice do you have for women who want to follow their passion and dreams?
KK: I would never tell women that there aren’t tradeoffs and that you can have it all, because I don’t think you can. Nobody can have it all. I don’t know how anyone could do the job that I’m doing and have three kids. That’s from my point of view. It could be different, maybe if you had a lot of money and could afford all the help. I think you have to make your choices in life and you have to follow the path that you think is the ight path for yourself.You have to define what is meaningful for you, and you know it’s different for everybody — what drives you, what is meaningful to you, the kind of life you want to have. I always say to my dancers, I don’t want anyone to look back on their career and have regrets and ask:Why didn’t I take that opportunity or why did I blow that opportunity? You know sometime you just have to pick a road and you have to go down it, because there are a lot of roads to choose from. I don’t think that my advice is going to be applicable to anybody else’s choices in their life. I had a passion and I followed it to a lot of things, and I was fortunate along the way. I have no complaints.

You are a true inspiration for many. What is it like to have such admiration?
KK: All I ever feel is fortunate to still contribute, and that just because I can no longer dance it doesn’t mean that I can’t contribute, that I can’t make the future of this company stronger by building foundations here, helping others to achieve their dreams, and keep this company vital. Keep it in the public eye. All those things are important to me.

How do you stay inspired and motivated?
KK: I get really tired sometimes, but I’m used to that. As a dancer there were times where you really didn’t feel like dancing, but if you are a pro you do it anyway.You learn discipline and you learn to do stuff that you may not really want to do sometimes. And there are lots of parts of this job that aren’t my favorite parts, but you just get on with it. Like in any job, you can’t love every bit of it, and you can’t love it everyday, but for the most part as long as you feel motivated than that is good. I’m motivated by the people I work with and I’m motivated by the people who come and visit us. All the artistic collaborators that I get to work with, the designers or the choreographers, all those things are at least never boring. It can be stressful, but never boring here.