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Toronto Montreal

INTERVIEW | Talking To Karen Kain & Two Of The Dancers About Highly Anticipated ‘Swan Lake’

By Paula Citron on June 10, 2022

Genevieve Penn Nabity and Christopher Gerty / Siphesihle November and Maria Kochetkova in rehearsal for Swan Lake (Photo: Karolina Kuras / Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)
Genevieve Penn Nabity and Christopher Gerty / Siphesihle November and Maria Kochetkova in rehearsal for Swan Lake (Photo: Karolina Kuras / Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

The National Ballet of Canada/Swan Lake, staged and directed by Karen Kain, Four Seasons Centre, June 10 to 26. Tickets here

Karen Kain, the National Ballet of Canada’s artistic director emerita, has given the company a special parting gift. She is leaving them with a lavish new production of Swan Lake, and such is the lure of this quintessential classic of classical ballets, that the 16 performances are almost sold out.

As well, such is the gruelling nature of the lead roles, the production, which opens tonight (June 10), features six different Prince Siegfrieds and Odette/Odiles, among whom are two dancers who will be performing in the coveted ballet for the first time — principal dancer Siphesihle November and second soloist Genevieve Penn Nabity.

Paula Citron sat down with Kain, November and Nabity to talk about this reimagined Swan Lake, and what it means to them.

Karen Kain on the new ‘Swan Lake’

I understand this new version has been inspired by Erik Bruhn’s 1967 production for the National. What made you want to do it?

For sentimental reasons. I was still at the ballet school when I first saw it, and later, it was the first Swan Lake that I danced in. I had no idea at the time how contemporary and advanced it was. In the original 1877 Petipa/Ivanov Swan Lake, the prince isn’t very important. Eric gave the prince a storyline that runs through the whole ballet, which made his version very special and forward-thinking at the time. I felt his concept needed to be seen again. In fact, I’ve longed to see it again. It was created on the National by one of the greatest dancers in the world, who would later become the National’s artistic director. Swan Lake is an homage to him.

You are listed as the person who has directed and staged ‘Swan Lake’, but you had a creative team helping with the choreography.

There were three of us, associate artistic director Christopher Stowell, choreographic associate Robert Binet and me.

How is ‘Swan Lake’ 2022 different from the Bruhn version?

Today’s National is much bigger, with many more dancers, so it is a fuller version with more demanding dancing. Today’s dancers are more technically accomplished, so the choreography is more complex. We’ve added in more secondary roles to showcase the company, for example, but there are tribute elements that I wanted to retain for their value. We did keep Erik’s solo for the prince, and the famous pas de trois is intact. We’ve kept the very dark fourth act the same as Erik’s, but it’s a different ballet in many ways, which is why I say it’s inspired by Erik Bruhn. I really enjoyed the process — watching and editing.

Can you talk about the new design?

The set and costume designer is Gabriela Tylesova. I heard about her from David McAllister, the former artistic director of Australian Ballet. She did their Sleeping Beauty. She’s originally from the Czech Republic, but immigrated to Australia. Her visual sense is so beautiful and so imaginative. She has created a fantasy world that is darkly romantic and lavish at the same time.

Karen Kain on casting November and Nabity

Siphe is one of the most talented dancers in the company, but he is short. I thought his stature would keep him away from the princely roles, yet here he is doing Siegfried.

I have to thank the new artistic director of the National, Hope Muir, because she found the money to bring in guest artist Maria Kochetkova to perform with Siphe. The ballerina is tiny, but she is also a very well-known, international star who is a spectacular dancer. She has performed with major companies all over the world.

What about second soloist Genevieve? What a coup for her to get a ‘Swan Lake’.

First, I want to point out that the artistic director doesn’t cast alone. It’s a consultative process with the artistic team that includes coaches, Christopher and Robert.

Genevieve’s technique is quite amazing. She is a very strong and accomplished dancer, and she deserved getting a chance to do Swan Lake. I wasn’t a principal dancer when I did my first Swan Lake at 19, although I was made a principal right after. If you are ready, and there are enough shows, you should be given the opportunity, and this run has 16 performances. The lead roles are so demanding that you can’t do a whole bunch in a row. All six casts are wonderful.

Siphesihle November and Maria Kochetkova / Genevieve Penn Nabity and Christopher Gerty in rehearsal for Swan Lake (Photo: Karolina Kuras / Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)
Siphesihle November and Maria Kochetkova / Genevieve Penn Nabity and Christopher Gerty in rehearsal for Swan Lake (Photo: Karolina Kuras / Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

In conversation with Siphesihle November and Genevieve Penn Nabity about Swan Lake

South African-born November is 23, and Michigan-born Nabity is 21. Both trained at Canada’s National Ballet School before joining the company.

How did you hear that you were cast in Swan Lake?

SN: I knew at the beginning of the year that they were bringing in Masha for me. As a rule, we never really know the casting until it is announced. I don’t like to set myself up for disappointment, but I knew I was ready for it, so I knew it could happen.

GPN: I found out a week after coming back from the March break when rehearsals began. I had understudied Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty and the Sugar Plum Fairy in Nutcracker, which were leading roles, so I know the company was thinking about me for those parts.

What was your reaction when you found out about ‘Swan Lake’?

SN: There is incredible talent in the company, so there is a lot of competition. It was a pleasant surprise. Swan Lake is a huge ballet. It’s my first big classical role, and I consider it a privilege. There are a couple of shorter ballerinas in the company, so there’s a good chance for a partner for me in the National itself.

GPN: I was so excited. My partner is Christopher Gerty. He had understudied the prince before, and then he was officially cast.

What makes ‘Swan Lake’ so special?

SN: Every dancer dreams of doing the classics. Any opportunity to perform in a classic ballet is a gift — to join that huge lineage of great dancers who have done the role over the years. Swan Lake also is the type of ballet that reveals a lot about the company and the dancers because it is a monster. Being in Swan Lake establishes you as a classical dancer. It’s also an honour.

GPN: Everyone knows about Swan Lake, even if you are not into dance. The world accepts it as the epitome of classical ballet because of its pure technique. It’s interesting, that when I was ten, I performed Anna Pavlova’s Dying Swan for a competition. Even that young, I was into swans.

How do you see your role in this production, inspired by Erik Bruhn’s version?

SN: Erik really beefed up the role of the prince, and they’ve kept in the famous solo that Erik created for the prince. In Erik’s version, the prince really has a presence. He is a young man who understands that his birthday is coming up, and that responsibilities are coming with it. He has to find a bride. It’s his duty as a royal prince. His youth has ended. Before, he really wasn’t present in life. Life just happened to him. He never had to take charge. He never had to be visceral. Now he has to grow up. When he meets Odette, he has never experienced anything like that before. What he feels is a new experience. It’s love. I know he dies and she mourns over him. I’ve had conversations with Karen about his storyline. She gave me enough that I can grasp who he is — that I have enough to work on. She helped me shape my thoughts.

GNP: Odette has been captured by the evil von Rothbart and is a prisoner. When she meets the prince for the first time, she is an innocent — trusting and sweet, but she is also adventurous. In Act 3, I play Odile, who is pretending to be Odette to trick the prince. She has to be seductive. Everyone is looking at her. Odile gets what she wants. As I work with both characters, I have to make sure that they make sense together.

What about the future?

SN: I’m content at the National. I love the company and the city. I see myself staying here and becoming the best dancer I can be.

GNP: I want to build up my repertoire here by dancing every principal role I can. I want to get out of North America and dance with every major company in the world. But, there are good vibes at the National, and it will always be my home company.

Finally, what does dance mean to you?

SN: It means many things, but at this point, it is my ability to communicate, to tell stories, to move people. In the world right now, I want my dance to fill the mind and the souls of people. I want to communicate with the world. Dance is what I’m happiest doing.

GNP: Dance is my form of expression. It is where I get my joy of life. It is a beautiful, athletic art form. It is where I feel at home, and where I give myself to the audience.

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Paula Citron
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INTERVIEW | Talking To Karen Kain & Two Of The Dancers About Highly Anticipated ‘Swan Lake’

By Paula Citron on June 10, 2022

Karen Kain, the National Ballet of Canada’s artistic director emerita, has given the company a special parting gift.
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