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National Ballet dances back after 14 years

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The National Ballet of Canada and its most famous personality, Karen Kain, both began life in 1951.

So this is the 60th-birthday year for both.

Kain, a beloved ballerina, hung up her pointe shoes at age 46. She has stayed with the 68-dancer, Toronto-based company and since 2005 has been at its helm as artistic director.

Speaking by phone from Victoria, Kain recalls that Winnipeg was the final stop on her emotional 1997 retirement tour.

But the company hasn't been back since. Now, 14 years later, the ballet is finally touching down in Winnipeg for one night of its mixed-repertoire 60th-anniversary tour. That night happens to be Tuesday, election night -- a fact that takes Kain by surprise.

"We didn't know that -- that's too bad," she says, though Jeff Herd, executive director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, later says at least some staff at the National Ballet are aware of it.

Kain says she hopes people will vote early and head to the Centennial Concert Hall in lieu of watching election results.

"If people don't come out -- if there isn't a support for us to be there -- we can't afford (to return)," she says.

Kain and Herd both say that for economic and logistical reasons, the ballet often skips isolated Winnipeg when it tours the West. When the company does come here, RWB partners with it as a marketing arm, earning a small fee in return, Herd says.

In 2009, the company had to cancel its Sleeping Beauty tour to Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Victoria and Nanaimo -- the same cities as the current tour -- because it had a $1-million deficit and the financial risk was too great. Herd reveals that Winnipeg was originally on that itinerary, but was dropped even before the dates were made public.

"When you're a custodian of a large cultural institution," Kain says, "you can't make foolhardy decisions."

The reason the diamond-anniversary tour isn't of a lavish story ballet like Swan Lake or The Sleeping Beauty is prohibitive costs. Those shows require an orchestra, elaborate sets and costumes and a huge cast and crew, totalling more than 100 people.

Instead, Kain is leaving the tutus at home and showing off 50 of her dancers in more cutting-edge works. She's bringing a program of four acclaimed contemporary ballets, three danced to recorded soundtracks -- one to the voice of country legend Johnny Cash -- and one accompanied by a live pianist. It's the first time the company has ever toured without an orchestra.

"I love this program... and it's the program we can afford to bring," Kain says. "If you bring out a big ballet with a big title, you're going to have a better response at the box office. The Catch-22 is that I can't afford to do that.

"The response to this program has been extraordinary. People are on their feet in every single city, screaming. I have so many young, talented dancers who are very hungry to push the envelope.

"I do believe the technical level is higher with each generation. I love to watch these young people attack these works."


Dance preview

The National Ballet of Canada

  • Centennial Concert Hall
  • Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.
  • Tickets $37.75 to $102.25 at Ticketmaster

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 1, 2011 G3

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