Karen Kain caught her first big break in 1972 when Rudolf Nureyev, the Russian dance icon, came to the National Ballet of Canada to stage his production of The Sleeping Beauty. Kain was originally slated to play a fairy godmother, but after one rehearsal, Nureyev exploded in front of the corps, screaming that she needed to play Princess Aurora.
From there, Kain rose to be one of the finest and most internationally renowned Canadian ballerinas to ever float across a stage. She was the marquee star of the National Ballet for 28 years — almost twice the length of most ballerinas’ careers. She gave approximately 10,000 performances in her career. She holds honorary degrees from five Canadian universities and is a member of the Order of Canada. Yet, even at the height of her career, Kain would stiffen with stage fright before performances, often vomiting in the wings before entering the stage, where she forgot her nerves and became engrossed in her character. She later told Toronto Life:
“I can act like an extrovert, but that’s a performance. It takes a lot out of me.”
When she retired at age 46, The National Ballet of Canada was falling off the international radar. The province and city had cut funding, attendance was declining, donations had stalled, and the company would soon be settling a wrongful termination suit with another dancer for a reported $1.6 million. It needed help.
A year later, Kain was hired as an “artistic associate,” where she was charged with fundraising to save the upcoming production of Swan Lake, on the verge of cancellation because it was too expensive. She was terrified, dreading the wining and dining that came with the position. She would later explain,
“I’m not a businessperson, I’m not a fundraiser. I’m an artist.”
Once again, she had to push away her fear and become a character, but this time, she wasn’t on stage. In pitch meetings, she didn’t let her fear show, and managed to raise $250,000 — enough to save Swan Lake — from top Canadian businesspeople such as then-Harlequin president William Lawrence Heisey and investment executive Jim Pitblado.
“Karen likes to hide her light under a bushel basket,” says Pitblado. “But when she’s talking about the company, that reserve disappears. She’s so natural in communicating her vision and commitment. It’s like a supreme allied commander motivating the troops.”
For Kain, playing a formidable businesswoman is much like playing Princess Aurora — a role she didn’t see herself in at first, but soon became natural. If she had accepted her self-imposed barrier of just being a ballerina, we wouldn’t know her name today. Like most retired ballerinas, Kain would have faded into the abyss. Instead, she’s at the peak of her power as the National Ballet’s current artistic director.
It’s easy for us to say, “I’m not that person” or “I could never do that,” and stick to what you know. What’s difficult — and more rewarding — is plunging into where you want to be. Don’t talk yourself into being content where you are. Go out into the unknown, and act like you know what you’re doing. Even if you don’t know how to take the first step, like Kain, you’ll figure it out as you go.
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