Karen Kain brings a ‘feminist take’ to beloved ballet classic ‘Swan Lake’


Karen Kain is finally getting her new “Swan Lake.”

On June 10, after multiple pandemic postponements, the National Ballet of Canada will retract two huge black wings — the introductory iteration of Gabriela Týlešová’s fantastical designs — to reveal the company’s long-awaited $3.5-million production of the Tchaikovsky fairy-tale classic, directed and staged by Kain, and inspired by a version she first danced as a teenager.

“It’s such a pleasure now to be working with the dancers in the studio,” said Kain, who officially retired as the company’s artistic director almost a year ago. “I’m enjoying every minute of it.”

Kain confided that during her 16-year reign, administrative chores left her less time to work directly with the dancers than she would have wished.

“I kept in touch with the artistic aspect mainly through programming, but I so missed being in the studio and being part of the process. You can imagine how grateful I am for this opportunity.”

Naturally, being a practical person as well as a romantic, Kain is hoping her new vision of “Swan Lake” will ignite public enthusiasm and do what every big ballet company relies on “Swan Lake” to do: sell tickets.

There are some very eccentric versions of “Swan Lake” out there — Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman’s 2014 version for the Norwegian National Ballet has the dancers sloshing around in 5,000 litres of water — but most readings tread a well-beaten path.

“Swan Lake” tells of a young woman, Odette, bewitched and controlled by the thoroughly nasty Von Rothbart, who turns her into a swan. This is portrayed in the ballet’s prologue.

Like her similarly befeathered co-maidens, Odette is fated to inhabit a lake of tears. Only at night do Odette and her companions regain human form. There is a possible out. If a human of the male gender swears undying love and fidelity, the avian spell will be lifted. Cue a handsome prince.

Siegfried — no connection to Wagner — is introduced to us in Act I. Despite the best efforts of his jolly friends and brace of sisters — two characters exhumed from the ballet’s original libretto — he cannot shake off an inner gloom. Freighted with thoughts of adult responsibility, he heads out into the night and arrives at a lake in time to witness Odette in her moment of metamorphosis. Siegfried is immediately smitten and willing to commit, but Herr Rothbart is not about to have a human mess with his malignant magic.

So, in Act III, staged in this version as a glittering masquerade, Rothbart contrives to deceive Siegfried. The young prince is tricked into believing that the unannounced guest at the birthday party where he is expected to choose a bride is none other than Odette. In fact, she is look-alike Odile, renowned for her ability to beguile men with a series of 32 whipped turns — pirouettes on steroids — called fouettés in ballet speak. This athletic feat persuades Siegfried to swear undying love, thus betraying Odette. It does not end well.

“Swan Lake” was among the first full-length classics produced for the National Ballet by its English founding artistic director, Celia Franca. That 1955 version was informed by Franca’s familiarity with a very traditional version, based on the 1895 St. Petersburg production that she knew from her early days in London. A decade later, Franca invited her friend, the renowned Danish dancer Erik Bruhn, to stage a new version.

Bruhn’s 1967 production, through skilful staging and to the benefit of all except bar sales, managed to eliminate two of the usual three intermissions making the ballet less of a long haul for audiences. At the time, Bruhn’s version ruffled the feathers of delusional purists who believe that the big classics have “authentic” versions that must never be tampered with.

Bruhn introduced more dancing for the prince and substituted an evil “Black Queen” — incomparably performed by Franca — for the traditional male sorcerer.

The production’s emotional love-story arc and tragic ending, however, ticked all the right ballet boxes and, with occasional tweaks and design changes over the years, Bruhn’s “Swan Lake” became much loved by audiences. Then, three decades later, a new artistic director, James Kudelka, decided to put his own thumbprint on the hallowed Russian classic.

Kudelka’s 1999 version of “Swan Lake” — brought to the stage in the midst of a very public battle between the company and ousted principal dancer Kimberly Glasco — took the story’s symbolic theme of good versus evil to an apocalyptic level. In the process, the tragic human love story was swamped.

It was never a secret that Kain lamented the loss of Bruhn’s “Swan Lake.”

“I first saw it when I was still at the National Ballet School,” said Kain. “It had a powerful influence on me.”

As a ballerina, she grew to love Bruhn’s version during a quarter-century of performances. When she succeeded Kudelka in 2005, the National Ballet was in no financial shape to jettison his production, which still sold tickets.

As the great Russian-American choreographer George Balanchine wryly noted years ago, the conjunction of the words “Swan” and “Lake” exerts a powerful magnetic force. Audiences will come without particular regard for the merits or demerits of the production itself. Thus, when a company has paid what in 1999 was close to $2 million for a “Swan Lake,” it has to earn back its investment. That can take many years.

Fortunately, most of the budgeting and preparations for Kain’s production were completed before the pandemic lockdowns began.

“In March 2000, we were about 80 per cent done and heading into a period of intense rehearsal,” said associate artistic director Christopher Stowell who, along with company’s choreographic associate Robert Binet, is assisting Kain. Still, it has required a focused effort to get the process back up to speed and complete the remaining 20 per cent.

Kain’s new production, though inspired by Bruhn’s, is not simply an act of reclamation. While substantial amounts of his choreography remain, Kain is injecting her “Swan Lake” with what she calls “a feminist take” and a measure of naturalism she admits may take some by surprise.

“I want audiences to understand the full horror of what is happening to Odette and her friends. They are frightened girls forced to act a certain way. They are not anonymous creatures. They are captured women, and I want people to see that they are being manipulated and abused.”

Portions of formal classical choreography will retain their traditional purity and precision, but Kain is including an element of naturalism and humanity so the love story and the larger symbolic clash of good and evil are seamlessly combined.

She is not a choreographer. Kain has relied on Stowell and Binet to provide additional dances where needed. But she is very much in charge, supervising every artistic decision, coaching the dancers, passing on her insights.

“It’s amazing how every nuance of movement has stayed in her body,” observed Stowell.

If it works out as she hopes, Kain will be leaving the National Ballet with a “Swan Lake” that balances tradition with the expectations of modern audiences and that will serve the company for years to come.

“Swan Lake” is at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. W., June 10 to 26. See national.ballet.ca for information. Tickets are selling fast.


Michael Crabb is a Toronto-based freelance writer who covers opera and dance for the Star.


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