The Women of Swan Lake
by Caroline Dickie
May 24, 2022

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Karen Kain as the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. Photo by Andrew Oxenham.

Women have long been essential to the story and performance of Swan Lake – the revered leading role of Odette/Odile embodies the ballet’s core dualities and the female dancers of the Corps de Ballet contribute enormously to its pathos and spectacle. Historically, however, women have been underrepresented on creative teams restaging Swan Lake and, as a result, have enjoyed fewer opportunities to reimagine one of ballet’s formative classical works.

Artistic Director Emerita Karen Kain has the distinction of having been an exquisite Odette/Odile and the creative lead on The National Ballet of Canada’s new Swan Lake, which she is staging and directing this June. Kain was certain she wanted a “woman’s perspective” on the look and feel of the production, so she recruited renowned designer Gabriela Týlešová and Canadian lighting designer Bonnie Beecher to realize the visual and atmospheric qualities that make this Swan Lake so unique.

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Karen Kain and Gabriela Týlešová with White Swan Costume for Swan Lake. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

Kain was also determined to humanize Odette, whom she represents not as a swan, but a woman held captive – full of feeling, intelligence and the will to survive. Kain’s Odette is not merely a distraction for Siegfried or a balm for his own limited freedoms. She is a mutual participant in their love affair with a degree of emotion and agency equal to his, albeit with much more at stake. Also human are the 24 women of the Corps de Ballet, whose shared circumstances with Odette, as prisoners of Rothbart, makes for a compassionate and fiercely protective community.

Kain expands the roster of female roles by adding two sisters for Siegfried, Celia and Elizabeth, named in honour of Canada’s illustrious women of ballet: Celia Franca, the founder of The National Ballet of Canada, and Betty Oliphant, the co-founder of Canada’s National Ballet School. Their presence – as respected friends to Siegfried and Benno, spirited partygoers and gifted dancers – acknowledges Franca and Oliphant’s service to ballet, not least of which, for Franca, was setting the first full-length Swan Lake in Canada in 1955.

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Artists of the Ballet in rehearsal for Swan Lake. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

There is added dimension to Kain’s rendering of Siegfried’s mother, The Queen, who is less a caricature of icy femininity than a loving yet pragmatic parent who enforces the rules. In Siegfried’s case, the rules are that he must find a wife to help him carry out his royal duties now that he has come of age. The Queen is clear that this should happen at the Masked Ball, where Siegfried is approached by four women eager for the opportunity. That each woman attends the ball by choice, with an entourage of friends, is a detail that distances this scene from others in the history of Swan Lake, where the women arrive by chaperone, their own intentions unstated or unknown.

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Karen Kain leading Harrison James and Jurgita Dronina in Swan Lake rehearsal. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

Kain’s new staging of Swan Lake does far more than secure her legacy with The National Ballet of Canada; it broadens the conversation about how and why this iconic ballet is enjoyed and understood.


Swan Lake is onstage June 10 – 26, 2022

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