“Karen Kain is not a Real Housewife”: How the filmmakers of Swan Song captured the subtle drama of the National Ballet of Canada
The documentary by Chelsea McMullan and Sean O’Neill follows Kain as she directs a production of Swan Lake—her final act with the company after a legendary 50-year career
Karen Kain has been a prima ballerina and, more recently, the artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada. But, in advance of her retirement in 2021, the industry legend took on one final challenge: directing her first ever ballet, a production of Swan Lake. Throw in a pandemic, some artistic angst and the daily dramas of life en pointe and you have Swan Song, a documentary covering the blood, sweat and occasional icy stares that went into Kain’s, well, swan song with the NBC. After premiering at TIFF, Swan Song will open in theatres on September 29 and air as a four-part series on CBC in November. “Ballet is a closed-off world,” says Chelsea McMullan, the Canadian documentarian who spent two years embedded in this rarefied space. Here, McMullan and producer Sean O’Neill talk about Kain’s legacy, collaborating with executive producer Neve Campbell and making sacrifices for art.
I’m sure you’re experts now, but did you know much about ballet going into this project?
O’Neill: Not really. We have both made docs about artists working in different disciplines, including dance, so we knew what it was like to try to translate artistic media into the language of film. And of course we’d seen Black Swan, we’d seen Centre Stage, so we understood something about the representation of ballet in fiction, but we wanted to know what it was really like.
McMullan: It was a steep learning curve. When you immerse yourself in a new environment, you realize how much you don’t know. Part of it was understanding the choreography in order to understand what they were trying to express. I knew what a pirouette was, but what’s a sauté? What’s an arabesque? And then you’re trying to understand this culture that is extremely closed off. Achieving this thing that looks so beautiful and effortless requires so much discipline and not showing pain or emotion. So we’re trying to develop an intimacy with people whose whole life is about keeping things bottled up.
O’Neill: We assumed that there was a hierarchy, and dancers who wanted to climb that hierarchy, and also dancers who were having a hard time reaching the ideals the ballet world projects in terms of race and gender and body type. But it was about developing the trust to be able to get at those stories. Our goal, even before we had settled on a subject, was to do something in the cinéma vérité style, where you are following a story in real time as it’s unfolding. That requires time, which requires funding. So we knew we needed a strong hook, a sense of stakes. And then we heard that Karen Kain was directing for the first time before her retirement and that the ballet was Swan Lake, which was a role she had played so famously, and that this marked fifty years with the NBC. And it was like, Stakes! Stakes! Stakes!
Related: Thirteen must-see movies at TIFF this year
So you approached her then?
O’Neill: Karen would never want to make a documentary about herself. I think what interested her is that she has always wanted the National Ballet of Canada to be recognized as the great international company that it is. As she says in the doc, the company has been her life, and she feels great passion and fervour and, if not a debt, then a sense that she wants to steward the company’s security. And I think the other thing she liked about our pitch is that it wasn’t a Karen Kain bio doc. It was an ensemble-driven piece about the entire process, and that really appealed to her.
McMullan: As soon as we started shooting, she was so chill. Karen gives no fucks—when it comes to cameras, I mean. She gives plenty of fucks about other things. I think that’s maybe because she’s so used to being in the spotlight. She’s also incredibly savvy; she knows that ballet needs to grow its audience.
She seems preposterously poised at all times. Please tell me you saw her throw a fit at least once.
O’Neill: Never. There was a piece in the Globe that talked about how Karen never snaps, but her silences are terrifying. She has this way of receding when she’s anxious, and I think you saw that. I think she was quite honest about the anxiety and the doubt she felt doing this for the first time at her age.
There is that one moment, I think during dress rehearsal, where the camera really lingers on her stare.
McMullan: Right. It’s all in the micro-expressions, which is the culture of ballet. She’s not going to go all Real Housewives on these dancers. That’s not who she is. But you see that look reverberating through 45 bodies in the room. It was definitely a challenge for us to make these subtle dynamics visible. During shooting, we would be seeing all of this dramatic action unfolding, and then you’d watch the footage, and at first it just wasn’t coming through. We had a lot of story meetings to figure out how to create these narratives.
O’Neill: We wanted to make sure we didn’t miss anything, so Chelsea’s in the studio, two cameras going, watching both on their phone monitor, and then has six microphones going into their ear so they can tell the camera people what to shoot. You have these dancers who don’t want to be mic’d, and we have two seconds to mic them because they don’t want to be late for rehearsal. And we’re using these NBC mics that are the size of a credit card so they don’t inhibit their bodies, and we’re getting yelled at by the rehearsal directors because they don’t want us to be there. Our cinematographers had to learn the choreography so that they could follow along on the dance floor and not get hit. Ten hours a day, five days a week. It was very intense. Our directors of photography each lost 20 pounds over three months.
Sounds like the only thing more difficult than performing in Swan Lake is making a doc about it.
McMullan: We started being like, Wait, who’s our Rothbart? Are we captured?
Kain’s production of Swan Lake was the first classic ballet ever to feature dancers with bare legs rather than tights. This provided more drama than I would have anticipated.
McMullan: Right. And that’s a good example when you were asking about things we didn’t really understand at the outset. When I first heard about the tights conversation, it was like, Okay, tights or no tights, what’s the big deal?
But then you have corps dancer Tene Ward explaining how this is actually about outdated traditions and ingrained racism.
O’Neill: Right. I think this was one of many examples of how an issue or a tension really comes to life through the characters. Once we found Tene’s point of view on the tights, it was like, oh, this has so much significance, both as a specific issue and as an example of how difficult it is to make even these small changes in these large organizations when it comes to systemic issues. It’s not like changing the swan to a cow, but it shows what you face when you try to make a change that is unequivocally right: artistically, ethically, socio-politically.
Another great character is Shae Estrada, a chain-smoking, biker-jacket-wearing badass of a ballerina. Was it important to depict someone who is so outside of the stereotype?
O’Neill: Chelsea interviewed all 70 dancers in the company before we started shooting the project, just to get a sense of the backstories, and Shae was off at that time. And then Chelsea met her shortly before we started shooting, and they were like, Stop the presses—we need to add a character. She’s incredible. She’s an outsider, and she’s honest in a way that is very rare in this world.
McMullan: I think we felt like she would be the person the audience would relate to. She speaks her mind, and as we see in the doc, she is dealing with some real demons. But she’s also funny. She’s that bridge between the two worlds.
Neve Campbell is an executive producer. How did that happen?
McMullan: I was watching everything I could around ballet for my research, and one of the films I watched was The Company, which was such a beautiful film and probably our biggest inspiration. So then I went down a Google spiral of Neve Campbell and found out that she trained at the National Ballet School, so we reached out.
O’Neill: She was incredible. She gave amazing notes: she brought the perspective of the dancers and she also has the eye of a filmmaker. She was also just really nice and sweet and a real cheerleader during the editing process. She came to TIFF during the actors strike and walked the red carpet, which is not an easy thing to do.
Were you guys Party of Five fans?
O’Neill: Yes. But, even more than that, The Craft. “Light as a feather, stiff as a board” for life.
McMullan: I was more Party of Five. And then Wild Things, obviously.
At one point, Robert Binet, the choreographic associate, talks about the tension between striving for the best possible art and the sacrifice it requires, which is a theme that runs through the whole movie.
McMullan: Yes, and I think it became so prevalent because we were having those conversations ourselves about what we were putting our own team through and whether it was worth it.
O’Neill: You have this deranged hunger to want to make something that will stir something in somebody else and has meaning and value. And in my experience the only way to do that is to devote yourself and surrender. Was it worth it? I think everybody’s answer is their own, and it probably changes from day to day and based on the reception a project gets.
You’re Canadian documentary makers—I assumed you were in it for the money.
O’Neill: I am hanging up on you right now.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.