On the road again

Ahead of The National Ballet of Canada’s tour to London, artistic director Karen Kain explains how she’s bringing the troupe back to the global stage

When I assumed the artistic directorship of The National Ballet of Canada in 2005, I had a set of three key priorities intended to strengthen and advance the company and allow it to flourish creatively. The first of these involved attracting and hiring the best dancers I could, and giving those dancers the sorts of artistic goals and stimulation that would allow them to develop and reach their full potential as performers. Secondly, I wanted to revitalise and enrich our repertoire by acquiring new ballets and commissioning works from choreographers – both Canadian and international – with a new and distinct vision for dance, in its classical and modern idioms, such as Wayne McGregor, Alexei Ratmansky, Crystal Pite and others.

Secondly, I wanted to revitalise and enrich our repertoire by acquiring new ballets and commissioning works from choreographers – both Canadian and international – with a new and distinct vision for dance, in its classical and modern idioms, such as Wayne McGregor, Alexei Ratmansky, Crystal Pite and others.

Finally, I wanted to see the company tour again internationally as this was something it had done only sparingly in the previous decade. In many ways these three ideas were interrelated – even interdependent. I knew from my own experience as a performer that companies with an exciting repertoire and artistic impetus tended to attract the best dancers to their roster, and keep them there.

Dancers always want to be challenged and inspired, and providing them with new and innovative work is one of the best ways to ensure that. Touring, too, not only gives exposure to individual dancers, but helps put the company on the map, so to speak, galvanising it creatively and reinforcing the singular connection between artist and audience. But of these three priorities, touring would prove to be the most challenging to bring about. In the 10 years prior to my becoming artistic director, the National Ballet had rarely toured outside Canada. This was partly due to retrenchment resulting from financial and funding concerns during that time, but also due to a simple lack of commitment to the idea.

The previous artistic director was, and remains, a choreographer, and the company was highly invested in the creation of new repertoire by him. Undertaking major international tours was considered not just unfeasible, but nonessential to either the company’s growth or its identity. I felt, though, that if the National Ballet was to be a genuinely important company, one that mattered not just within Canada, but on the international stage, we would have to get back on the road again. But to achieve this meant not only finding the resources to finance the logistically, not to mention, organisationally complex business of touring a classical ballet company – but also staging ballets the wider world would want to see.

In 2007, we presented Polyphonia, a work by the wonderfully gifted Christopher Wheeldon.The ballet was a great success for us and we forged a close relationship with Christopher, who was thrilled with our company’s performance of his work. When I asked Christopher if he would be interested in creating a new work for us, he told me of his plans for a full-length ballet based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with The Royal Ballet. Then he asked if we would be interested in becoming involved as a coproducer on the project. The idea was a perfect fit, creatively and financially, for both companies and after talking to Monica Mason, the then artistic director of the Royal Ballet, we firmed up the details of the process and set the ball in motion.

When we gave the North American premiere of the ballet in 2011, following its world premiere in London, the response was ecstatic and I knew we had not just a great new ballet in our repertoire, but one we could tour. In October the following year we took Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Music Center in Los Angeles and then to The Kennedy Center in Washington DC in January 2013. We are currently in negotiations to bring it to other major dance centres.

While Alice had been unfolding, plans were also being made to celebrate the National Ballet’s 60th anniversary in 2011. To mark the occasion I wanted to unveil a new production of Romeo and Juliet to replace the John Cranko version that had been in our repertoire since 1964. For some time I had been trying to commission Alexei Ratmansky to create it for us.

This was harder than I thought it would be given that Alexei was, and remains, one of the most sought after choreographers anywhere. Yet I knew he would be perfect – finally, a window for him opened and our new Romeo and Juliet premiered in November 2011. Once again audiences and critics alike responded with overwhelming enthusiasm. We are bringing Alexei’s ballet to Sadler’s Wells in April – the first time we’ve performed in London in over 20 years. Sadler’s Wells, through Alistair Spalding, was committed to bringing us to London upon hearing of Alexei’s work with us.

The tour has been funded through a fee from Sadler’s Wells, a government grant, fundraising activities and support from our generous patrons to cover the total expense of CAD750,000 (€561,000) for 88 personnel, 4 shipping containers, 122 costumes and 250 pointe shoes. It feels good to be back.

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