Karen Kain's mother enrolled her daughter in ballet training because she believed it would improve her posture, poise, and discipline. Kain began training in 1962 at the age of 11 at the National Ballet School of Canada. Upon graduating in 1969, she was invited to join the National Ballet of Canada.
Kain became a principal dancer in 1971, performing central roles in a wide array of ballets, eventually becoming well known in Canada, with the help of legendary dancer Rudolf Nureyev. She worked as a guest artist with Roland Petit's Ballet National de Marseilles, the Bolshoi Ballet, the London Festival Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, the Hamburg Ballet, the Vienna State Opera Ballet, and the Eliot Feld Ballet. Kain is a subject of The Portraits of Andy Warhol, c. 1980.
In 1977 Kain stopped dancing, but started again in 1981 with the National Ballet of Canada, where she performed for 15 more years. In 1996, Kain reunited with Frank Augustyn to appear in her husband Ross Petty's panto production of Robin Hood at Toronto's Elgin Theatre. Kain retired as a professional dancer in 1997.
In 1998, she returned to the National Ballet of Canada as part of the senior management team, in the role of artistic associate. She supported artistic director James Kudelka against principal dancer Kimberley Glasco in a wrongful-dismissal suit. In 2005, she succeeded Kudelka as artistic director.
In 1976, she became an Officer of the Order of Canada and was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1991. She holds honorary degrees from the University of Toronto, York University, McMaster University, Trent University, and the University of British Columbia. In May 1998, the French Government named her an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters. Among Kain's other honours are the Performing Arts Award (1992) and the National Arts Centre Award (1997). In 1996, she became the first Canadian to receive the Cartier Lifetime Achievement Award. The choreographer Marguerite Derricks cited Kain as one of her heroes. in 1989 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation made a documentary about her, Karen Kain, Prima Ballerina. Kain had an arts based public middle school in Etobicoke named after her (Karen Kain School of the Arts) in 2008. In 2012, Kain received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
Kain has been married since 1983 to Ross Petty, a stage and film actor, and producer of theatrical pantomime productions in Canada for over 20 years. Kain's brother, Kevin Kain, is a noted tropical medicine expert based in Toronto, Ontario; she has three younger siblings and two nephews - Dylan and Taylor Kain.
In 1976 Kain appeared in a televised version of the ballet Giselle as the highly coveted title role, alongside Nadia Potts, Frank Augustyn, and Anne Ditchburn. The production was first shown in 1986. In 1985, Kain starred in an episode of the popular Canadian TV series Seeing Things. Kain was also alluded to in the 2003 movie directed by Denys Arcand, "The Barbarian Invasions" when Rémy Girard reminisced about his past love affairs.
- "Karen Kain". The Canadian Encyclopedia.
- Bob Thompson, "A woman on the Go Go: Catchy Gap ad, Austin Powers' moves make choreographer a hot commodity," Kingston Whig - Standard. Kingston, Ontario: July 5, 1999, pg. 27.
- "Karen Kain, Prima Ballerina". CBC News.
- "Diamond Jubilee Gala toasts exceptional Canadians". CBC. 18 June 2012. Retrieved 19 June 2012.
- FOOTNOTES - Karen Kain
- Karen Kain: Canada's Prima Ballerina
- The Ballerina Gallery - Karen Kain
- le Gala des étoiles - Karen Kain
- The Canadian Encyclopedia - Kain, Karen featuring a clip of Karen's performance in the National Ballet of Canada's 1976 production of Giselle
- Canada's Walk of Fame: Karen Kain
- CBC Digital Archives: Karen Kain, Prima Ballerina