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Neve Campbell on her ballet past, Karen Kain and the need for change in dance world

TORONTO — Dancer-turned-actress Neve Campbell says she hopes her documentary about the National Ballet of Canada sheds light on some of the uglier aspects of the dance world that demand change.
Karen Kain, left, and Neve Campbell from the documentary "Swan Song" are seen in a portrait on the sidelines of the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

TORONTO — Dancer-turned-actress Neve Campbell says she hopes her documentary about the National Ballet of Canada sheds light on some of the uglier aspects of the dance world that demand change.

Campbell says it’s one of the reasons she agreed to produce the film “Swan Song,” which traces the company’s 2022 production of “Swan Lake” as envisioned by principal dancer-turned-artistic director Karen Kain.

Directed by Chelsea McMullan, the feature includes interviews with young dancers who address the mental health struggles, racism, classism and rivalries that dog the profession. It opens Friday after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The film centres on Kain as she recounts a glittering international career that includes a celebrated partnership with Russian superstar Rudolf Nureyev and culminates with her vision for a more modern take on the quintessential romantic crowd-pleaser, “Swan Lake.”

Cameras follow Kain as the National Ballet of Canada attempts to rebound from a pandemic-induced shutdown with a renewed commitment to boost diversity among its ranks and audience.

Campbell acknowledges similar efforts underway in other companies, and says she hopes the film can further challenging conversations in a field that historically rewards tradition, conformity and compliance.

“It is addressing the racism that has existed in the ballet world, the need for diversity, the need for change in dance and that any art form needs to shift and grow,” said Campbell, who trained with Canada's National Ballet School before starring in TV’s “Party of Five” and the “Scream” film franchise.

“What I love about this story is that you see dancers who are doing really well, you see dancers who are struggling and see people doing better than them – the competitive element of that, what that does to you spiritually, emotionally, what you have to overcome, whether you want to continue doing it because you love the art form. That, I related to a lot.”

Kain, too, opens up about mental health difficulties in her own career, which rocketed after she joined the corps in 1969 – she was promoted to principal dancer in 1971 and soon gained international fame.

During a round of TIFF interviews alongside Campbell, Kain described herself as “lucky” and someone who’s benefited from supporters who went “out of their way to create opportunities” for her. “The National Ballet just let me fly.”

But success did not come without a cost.

“It's not like I've just sailed through life,” Kain added.

“Even getting so well known so young was very challenging for me because it made a lot of people around me who I thought were my friends be, kind of, not so friendly to me. And that was hurtful to me.”

Dancers showcased in the documentary include “Swan Lake” lead Jurgita Dronina, who conceals a debilitating injury; corps member Shaelynn Estrada, who recounts cleaning dance studios as a kid to help cover the cost of classes; and corps member Tene Ward, a dancer of Sri Lankan, African-American and Cherokee Indian descent who speaks about grappling with impostor syndrome.

Of course, it’s not all trials and tribulations. 

Kain and the dancers also speak of passion and love for their chosen career, and the sacrifices they’re willing to make for their art. Campbell, who portrayed a dancer in the 2003 feature “The Company,” credited her childhood ballet training with inspiring her later success as an actress.

"Storytelling is magical. And I'm glad I found another way to do it. I was never going to get to a place where Karen was in the company,” said Campbell.

“Dancers are amazing athletes, amazing artists and I'm glad the world is witnessing that more. 

"When I made the film that I did 20 years ago, there was not a lot of awareness around dance. But I think because of a lot of these reality shows and competitions now on television and documentaries being made we're really getting a greater understanding and appreciation of the dance world.”

"Swan Song" opens theatrically in Toronto on Friday before rolling out to other cities. Dates include Wolfville, N.S., on Oct.  11; Sudbury, Ont., on Oct. 12; the Ontario cities of Kingston and London on Oct. 13; Ottawa on Oct. 16; Vancouver, Victoria and Saskatoon on Oct. 20; and Amherst, N.S., on Oct. 26, with more markets possibly added.

“Swan Song” also airs as a four-part hour-long series on CBC and CBC Gem, starting Nov. 22.

It’s one of several CBC projects that expand on recent feature film releases, among them the film “Bones of Crows,” which premiered as a five-part drama Sept. 20, and the film “BlackBerry,” which debuts as a three-part hour-long series Nov. 9.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 26, 2023.

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press