Arts·Q with Tom Power

Before Scream brought Neve Campbell worldwide fame, she was an aspiring ballet dancer

The Canadian screen icon has executive produced a documentary series, Swan Song, about Karen Kain’s final performance. She talks to Q’s Tom Power about life behind the camera, her time at The National Ballet School of Canada and telling stories through movement.

The Canadian screen icon talks about Swan Song, a new documentary series she executive produced

Neve Campbell sitting in front of a studio microphone and against a blue curtain backdrop.
Neve Campbell in the Q studio in Toronto. (Vivian Rashotte/CBC)

After being catapulted to stardom by Wes Craven's 1996 slasher flick Scream and the TV hit Party of Five, Neve Campbell actively tried to avoid being typecast.  

"I certainly knew that I had been typecast in a way," the Canadian actor tells Q's Tom Power in an interview. "They were so iconic those roles, apparently, that I wanted to make sure that I could be perceived as something else."

Now, Campbell is an executive producer of Swan Song, a new documentary mini-series coming to CBC November 22nd, about Karen Kain's final staging of Swan Lake as artistic director for the National Ballet School of Canada. 

Producing a documentary about ballet is a natural fit for Campbell, who says it was her first artistic love. In fact, from the age of nine, Campbell was a student of the prestigious ballet school, and she says Kain was the catalyst for her own life as an artist.

"Karen Kain was my idol growing up [and] I am an artist in a big part because of her," the actor recalls. "I remember being nine years old and sitting on the edge of my seat watching her…. I remember thinking, 'You can storytell through your body. You can tell a story and have an entire audience be enraptured.'"

Campbell would revisit her passion for ballet with a co-production credit and starring role in Robert Altman's 2003 film The Company, a fictionalised account of Chicago's Joffrey Ballet. 

But Swan Song sees Campbell take a step back. 

"I like being behind the scenes," she says. "I like the creative process. I like working with other minds and it not being about just the performance, but about the essence of the project that you're creating."

WATCH | Official trailer for Swan Song:

Swan Song series trailer

7 months ago
Duration 2:08
Swan Song is an immersive new CBC documentary series that brings viewers inside The National Ballet of Canada as the company mounts a legacy-defining new production of Swan Lake, directed by ballet icon Karen Kain as she bids farewell to the company she’s become synonymous with.

Family ties

When Campbell was first approached to help produce the project, directed by Chelsea McMullen and co-written by Sean O'Neill, she says the filmmakers didn't realize how personally invested she was in Canadian ballet. 

"I was like, 'Do you understand? Do you have any idea the connection here?'"

Campbell's history with the National Ballet School of Canada is not just related to her childhood aspiration of being a ballet dancer — her immediate family's association with the company runs deep.

"My dad is a supernumerary for the company," she tells Power. "He goes on as basically [a] background performer for the company. My stepmother was a wardrobe coordinator for 35 years with the company. I'm so attached to this story in so many ways that it was just so perfect."

While dancing as an art form is something Campbell enjoys, she recalls her time at the school as being physically gruelling. 

"They start early in the morning and it's all day long: you're dancing and doing academics," she recalls. "You're really lucky to get a place and to get that kind of training … [but] it was hard. I was struggling physically. I just had a lot of injuries from very early.

"I was struggling with my body, but I also just had that thing of feeling like it had become so much about discipline and so much about work. I lost sort of my love for it."

Keeping fondness

Despite falling out of love with ballet and venturing into a successful acting career, Campbell keeps fond memories of her time as a dancer. And these memories are largely in part due to her admiration for Kain. 

"I first met her when I was nine, walking behind her … I was walking about 20 feet behind her," Campbell reflects. "I just was following her, and at some point and she turned around and said, 'Do you want to talk to me?'"

As an adult, Campbell is now taking part in press with Kain while promoting Swan Song as part of the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival where it premiered as a feature-length film. While working on Swan Song, Campbell says she was staggered by Kain's modesty, even after her four-decade career. 

"She is a master, but we only get there from doing hard work and doing the work to find the thing.… She obviously always pushed, pushed, pushed until she would get there."

WATCH | Neve Campbell's interview with Tom Power:

Changing dance

During Kain's long career, she's helped advance meaningful shifts in ballet. Her last production with the company, Swan Lake, would see the traditional presentation of ballet challenged. 

"It's always been white for centuries and that needed to shift. The company is now very diverse actually," says Campbell. "But what hadn't shifted was the fact that these dancers in Swan Lake — it's a very old school and traditional ballet — are all wearing pink tights.

"It was important to her that the dancers be represented fully as themselves and their art, their beauty, their beautiful skin, their beautiful selves."

For Campbell, working on Swan Song has helped to reinvigorate her passion for dance. 

"It was hard.… I'm glad I'm not doing it and I'm glad I found something else," she says. "[But] if I listen to music, if I listen to classical music, I see choreography, I dream choreography. 

"It's so very much a part of my being."

The full interview with Neve Campbell is available on our podcast, Q with Tom Power. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.


Interview with Neve Campbell produced by Catherine Stockhausen.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Oliver Thompson is a writer, producer and musician. Originally from the UK, where he worked for the BBC, Oliver moved to Canada in 2018.

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