Karen Kain knows how tough ballet is. That's why she wants to empower the next generation
Kain reflects on Swan Song, the gritty docu-series that captures her final production for the National Ballet
In the new four-part documentary series Swan Song, directed by Chelsea McMullan, we follow Karen Kain, an icon of Canadian ballet, and her many collaborators — dancers, choreographers, and costume and set designers — from first rehearsals to opening night. As they journey toward Kain's directorial debut, of her very own Swan Lake, the behind-the-scenes grittiness, endurance and pressure-cooker drama challenge the graceful beauty and flawless pliés that usually characterize ballet.
What makes Swan Song a binge-worthy, and at times nail-biting, watch are its compelling cast and the intergenerational narratives that characterize the series. If Kain embodies the pinnacle of a well-fulfilled life in dance, then watching her pass on knowledge and experience to younger generations feels both important and inspiring.
"I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for them. I get it," she tells CBC Arts, about witnessing different generations struggle with their bodies, their identities and their chosen paths in ballet. "I also know that so many of them have had a much tougher road to follow than I ever had."
An important theme in Swan Song is change in the ballet world, as it looks forward while also acknowledging its past. The documentary highlights these moments well, demonstrating how certain traditions, like dancers wearing pink tights and shoes regardless of their skin tones, should be rethought in a society striving for more inclusive practices and diversity.
As they weather many storms while in preparation for Swan Lake — untimely injuries and illness, uncooperative costumes and unwieldy set designs — Kain and her collaborators show us stories of transition and growth, as well as vulnerability and resilience when facing the unknowns that govern a dancer's life. Swan Song might signal the end of one career arc, but it announces the promising beginnings of many others.
CBC Arts talked with Kain over video chat. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Congratulations on the documentary! Tell us a bit about the experience of seeing yourself on-screen for Swan Song.
I think it's always hard to look at yourself. I imagine it's like that for everyone because what you're feeling and experiencing is not what it looks like on the other side — when you're being filmed or photographed. I learned to stop trying to be so self-critical because it doesn't do me any good. And, you know, it is what it is! [laughs]
This filming was real. It was the reality of what we were going through and the tension in the room and the joy in the room and the fun in the room, but also the hard work we were endeavouring to do.
I knew that [this] version [of Swan Lake] was, for me, a tribute to a mentor of mine, Erik Bruhn. He was a very famous Danish dancer and the artistic director of the National Ballet [of Canada] for a period [1983-1986]. He influenced me greatly with how he saw dance and the version of Swan Lake that he originally did for the National Ballet of Canada [in 1967]. It was the first version that I ever danced, and I had no idea how … modern it was compared to most versions of Swan Lake in the world.
What is so unique about Swan Lake for you as a dancer that it remains so special even after all these years?
It's interesting now when I look at it because Swan Lake sort of began my career, and then I finished my career with the National Ballet with Swan Lake in a different way.
I was only 19 years old, and I'd been in the company less than a year when I was given the opportunity to dance Swan Lake. That was just, of course, circumstantial because some of the other principal dancers were injured and others were on tour. Celia Franca was the director and founder of the National Ballet, and she just decided that she was going to give me a chance because she needed more principal dancers doing the lead role. It started my career, and then it just felt right at the end of my career that I wanted to pay tribute to Erik Bruhn and to Celia Franca — to my mentors.
Let's talk about tights! One of the plot points in Episode 3 is around the decision to have dancers not wear pink "flesh-coloured" tights for the first time. Can you explain to us the magnitude of such a simple costume change?
That's what the tradition was for every classical ballet. We would all wear these opaque, pale pink tights. And I just thought that the time for that was over and that I had an opportunity to change that and embrace the fact that the National Ballet of Canada was different now. Everybody wasn't white and everybody shouldn't have been forced to behave like they were and pretend that they were. It just felt really wrong.
I had also noticed that the dancers, when they did contemporary work, they were allowed to have bare legs and then they would just paint their pink shoes to match their legs. I always thought they were so gorgeous when they did that. You could see the skin tone, you could see the muscles working, and their legs and arms matched. So, I thought, I can do that here because I'm the big boss now! [laughs]
How do you see the passing on of knowledge and experience in Swan Song, and how has this been a central part of your career moving on from being a dancer yourself to a director?
In my career personally, all along the way, there were mentors that stepped forward and took me under their wing and gave me opportunities and gave me feedback and looked after me. I'd like to think that that's a big part of our profession. But I certainly also think that it's very rewarding to be the one on the other side who's looking out for opportunities for younger people. I think that's part of our profession, too, passing on this knowledge and opening doors for people.
I think of [Soviet dancer] Rudolf Nureyev, and he just opened every door he possibly could for me and took me as a guest artist with him to dance in Europe and all sorts of wonderful places. And we weren't even ideally suited. I was too tall for him, but he didn't care. He liked the way I danced, and we had a great rapport. It worked.
Are there things Swan Song might not address that you wish we knew more about?
I hope that people respect what it is that these artists do day in and day out to get on the stage and give the performances that they give. That they see how demanding it is for them. Not just physically demanding, but also emotionally.
They're giving everything they have, and it never feels like it's enough. They're aiming for a perfection that isn't actually possible. They're aiming to prove themselves so that they get more responsibilities in the future, that they get trusted with more. There's so much riding on their every day in the studio giving everything they have.
I know what it felt like, and I have the greatest respect and love for them all because it's a really tough profession.