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The naked ambition of National Ballet artistic director Karen Kain

Beneath her poised veneer is an exacting perfectionist, a tenacious fundraiser and a total control freak. Which explains how she turned the floundering National Ballet of Canada into one of the world’s premiere arts organizations

(Image: Photograph by Evaan Kheraj)

(Image: Evaan Kheraj)

The best seats at the Four Seasons Centre are on the right side of the grand ring, a few boxes back from the stage. From there, Karen Kain, the 63-year-old artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, surveys her dancers, assessing every arabesque, wincing at every shaky landing.

On the slushy evening of December 13, Kain took her spot for the opening-night performance of The Nutcracker, the twinkling Christmas bauble whose annual three-week run pads the company’s pockets for the rest of the year. Kain is willowy and austere, favouring a gallery owner’s uniform of tailored leather pencil skirts and expensive slouchy knits. She resembles a lovely alien, her pale face framed with wide-set eyes and lofty cheekbones, her black pixie cut pointing into blades. Everything about her appearance seems manicured, a costume of controlled rigidity. As the curtain rose, she sat upright, tapping her chin to the beat of Tchaikovsky’s opening allegro.

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Real Estate

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The Sell: a couple with young kids cash out after less than a year in Riverdale

The Sell: A couple with young kids cash out after less than a year in RiverdaleThe Sell: A couple with young kids cash out after less than a year in RiverdaleThe sellers: Shanna Landolt, the 43-year-old founder and president of executive search company the Landolt Group, and Paul Landolt, a 49-year-old software developer for RBC.

The property: A detached four-bedroom Edwardian in Riverdale, which the couple bought for $1.285 million in 2013, and lived in for just under a year with their three young kids.

The story: As Paul’s 50th birthday loomed closer, he and Shanna started daydreaming about a simpler life outside the city. Shanna grew up in Brockville, and the couple figured they could buy a house there—for a third of what it would cost them in Toronto—work remotely, and have enough extra cash to rent a pied-à-terre in the city and take regular family trips to the Caribbean. After mulling it over for a bit, they resolved to list the house just before Christmas to see what offers they could attract.

The prep: The Landolts’ agent, Suzanne Lewis of Keller-Williams, initially advised the couple to have the house professionally staged. Then, she reconsidered: two homes in the area had sold after receiving 20-plus offers, and some of those disappointed suitors were sure to bid on the next comparable property. So they spent four days de-cluttering and put the house on the market on December 9.

The offers: After a flurry of open houses, they received three offers, one of which was slightly over asking. Feeling buoyed, they signed all three back, and all returned with even higher bids. They haggled with the top bidder for 45 minutes, then made a deal for $74,500 over list price—a satisfying sum to put toward a new home base outside the city.

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People

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Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, the brains behind Toronto’s most exciting team, on instilling city pride and being pals with Drake

Q&A: Masai UjiriThere’s an odd sensation in the air right now—I believe they call it “not sucking.” As Raptors GM, how does it feel to be responsible for those good vibes?
The players, coaches and ownership are responsible for creating a winning culture, and the fan base is responding—I think we only had to wake them up. When we played the Nets in the playoffs last year, 5,000 fans stood in the rain watching on the giant screen outside the ACC, and it was an away game! Our fans are the best in the world.

And you’re at the centre of the frenzy. Can you still shovel your driveway without getting accosted by neighbours wanting to talk shop?
Well, my wife tells me I can’t pick my nose in the airport anymore—too many people watching! I really love to interact with fans as much as I can, but you’re right: it’s pandemonium. Family grounds me. I try to spend as much time as possible with my two princesses—my wife and my baby girl, who just turned one. 

Tim Leiweke hired you, and now he’s leaving. Did you ever consider joining him on the train out of town?
No. For me the train is stopped right here, and it’s not moving until we win a championship. 

Sports execs tend to rent here, knowing their stays might be short. You bought.
Yes, because I’m here to stay. My wife was the boss of the house hunt. I was settling into my job, and she was running around the city at seven or eight months pregnant, and she found a house in north Toronto that we love.

What else do you like about Toronto?
I’m one of those people who’ll go to one place and be like, “Wow, that’s really cool.” And then I’ll go to the next place and be like, “Wow, that’s really cool too!” That kept happening: I liked Yorkville. The Beach is cool. Downtown was the best. My wife and I would have great experiences at Buca or Pizza Rustica, or just walking around.

The U.S. media still largely ignore the Raps. Instead of, “The Raptors Are Winning,” the headlines are, “Why Are LeBron and the Cavaliers Losing?” Does that offend you?
Not at all. You get respect by winning. We have to get there.

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The Dish

Drinks

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The Reign in Spain: five bottles of garnacha to get you through what’s left of winter

Grenache, or garnacha, is like the white T-shirt of the wine world: low-priced, beloved, and it goes with everything

The Reign in Spain

Garnacha is one of the world’s most undervalued and prolific grapes. The low-acid, high-sugar, fruity variety can suffer from over-sweetness and brash mocha flavours in the hands of producers looking to maximize its commercial appeal. Not so with these bottles from Spain, which are sourced from 40-, 60-, 80-, even 100-year-old vines. Pair them with almost anything: ribs, wings, pulled pork, mac and cheese, meatloaf—or no food at all. At these prices, you might consider buying a case to take you through the winter.

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Features

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McMansion Wars: inside the nasty neighbour-versus-neighbour feuds of Forest Hill

McMansion Wars

The house that used to be at 212 Vesta Drive sold for $1.25 million in 2009. The buyers demolished it without a permit and erected this three-storey mini-mansion, many aspects of which exceeded the zoning bylaws for the area. Angry neighbours formed a residents’ association and spent three years fighting the owners. In the fall of 2012, the owners won at the OMB.

In the spring of 2009, 212 Vesta Drive—a four-bedroom 1930s Tudor on a 40-foot-wide lot—went up for sale. It was a pretty house with green trim that had been, in the words of the Forest Hill listing agent, “lovingly maintained with original charm and character.” The list price was $1.1 million, and cars full of eager bidders lined the street on offer night. There were 13 bids. Carmela Serebryany-Harris and Geoffrey Harris, a young couple with one child and another on the way, presented the winner at $1.25 million.

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The Informer

Culture

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See a strange, secretive, practically silent opera

The Whisper Opera

(Image: Armen Elliot)

It doesn’t feel like an opera at all. Instead of a palatial hall, The Whisper Opera is performed in the Theatre Centre for an audience of 52 people. The stage juts out into the crowd, draped in boudoirish ­curtains. The musicians ply their instruments gingerly, making faint melodies that sound like they’re coming from another room: the percussionist, for example, rubs two cowbells together and hits a glockenspiel with his fingers, and the cellist plays with a toothed mute stilling the strings. The soprano Tony Arnold doesn’t sing her words so much as breathe them. If you’re sitting more than five feet from the stage, you might not hear anything.

The Pulitzer-winning ­American composer David Lang has made a career of minimalist mischief. He conceived The Whisper Opera as a kind of unrecordable, sacrosanct event—something that could only be experienced live, in a theatre, in person. For the libretto, he cobbled together Internet secrets, googling phrases like “When I’m alone, I…” and “I wish I wasn’t so….” There’s no plot, just an impressionistic collection of ghostly phrases too private to be spoken at full volume.

The effect is as much performance art as it is music: the performers sit cross-legged on the stage, so close you can touch their shoelaces; the hushed music requires active listening to pick up; the singer practically murmurs secrets in your ear. It’s gimmicky, but it works. The piece is strange, singular and jarringly intimate. That’s something you can’t get on YouTube.

Feb. 26 to Mar. 1. $67.50. The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. W., 416-534-9261, tickets.rcmusic.ca.

The Informer

Columns

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Dear Urban Diplomat: do we have to disclose our black-mould discovery?

urban-diplomat-fungus-among-us

(Image: David Goehring/Flickr)

Dear Urban Diplomat,

My wife and I blew our budget on a detached home and during a minor reno found black mould in the basement, which looks like it was patched over by the previous owners. We suspect it runs up the wall and into the kitchen. After some hemming and hawing, we’ve decided to sell and downsize to a semi, which makes more sense for us financially. Our question: are we legally, ethically or otherwise obligated to tell our agent and prospective buyers about the mould, or can we just pretend we never noticed?

—Fungus Among Us, Riverdale

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The Informer

Features

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Inside the nasty, bizarro, contemptible, gobsmackingly screwed-up soap opera that is the TDSB

In a perfect world, the Toronto District School Board would receive zero attention. Its trustees and bureaucrats would hum away quietly in the background, dutifully ensuring the safety and functionality of the city’s 589 public schools. Instead, it’s a perpetual headline generator, churning out sordid tales of dysfunction, infighting and impropriety with such regularity that it’s hard to keep up. Here’s what’s wrong, and who’s to blame.

Director Donna Quan refused to hand over her contract, which spelled out an illegal $17,000 pay raise

Director Donna Quan refused to hand over her contract, which spelled out an illegal $17,000 pay raise (Image: Getty Images)

Problem No. 1

DONNA QUAN NEARLY SPARKED WWIII OVER $17,000

The evening of Wednesday October 29 was possibly the most absurd in the history of the Toronto District School Board. The board of trustees met in camera to discuss the contract of their sole employee, Donna Quan, the director of education. Quan is the most powerful school bureaucrat in the city, responsible for ­educating the TDSB’s 250,000 elementary and secondary students and managing its 38,000 employees. She first took on the position in January 2013 and initially had the board’s confidence. She and Mari Rutka, the diminutive, mild-mannered, consensus-driven trustee and wife of Toronto pediatric neurosurgeon Jim Rutka, sometimes met for tea on weekends. But after Quan’s first two years on the job—a scandal-plagued stretch punctuated by allegations of fiscal mismanagement, a forensic audit, police presence at board meetings, harassment allegations against a trustee, revelations of a shady deal with a Chinese government agency—let’s just say that confidence had eroded.

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The Goods

Homes

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Swish Château: an interior designer to the jet set creates a plush sanctuary in the city


Great Spaces: Swish Château

For 25 years, Lori Morris has designed fantasy-inducing estates all over the world—a sprawling mountain lodge in Montana, an ancient house in ­Jerusalem, an oceanfront beach property on the Gulf of Mexico. The hectic, travel-heavy lifestyle made her crave a waterfront retreat of her own. ­Walking around her Etobicoke neighbourhood in 2003, she came across a terraced neo-Georgian row house on the lakefront and had to have it. Problem was, it wasn’t for sale. She waited five years for it to come on the market and scooped it up the moment it did. In ­February 2008 she took possession and got to work turning the 2,500-square-foot property into her own private escape. She was inspired by French châteaus she’d ­visited on buying trips and indulged herself with the same luxuries as her clients: custom furnishings; antiques collected from France, Italy and ­England; ornate chandeliers; and enough rococo gilding to make Marie Antoinette blanch. She also updated the look to satisfy her 21st-­century tastes. She stripped the house down to the studs, added grand archways to open up the space and crowned the rooms with custom millwork she designed herself. The result is an over-the-top hideaway that serves as her own Petit ­Trianon in Mimico. Her favourite room is her ­bedroom—she calls the rest of the house “the long hallway to my bedroom.”

The Goods

Shopping

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The Find: five Om-worthy accessories for the meditation-mad

Restoration Hardware: An essential shopping list for serious serenity seekers

Ten years ago, it was yoga. Now, the voguish wellness crazy is meditation—tranquil, incense-fumed, cross-legged sessions that melt frantic millenial minds into a calmer state of being. The latest prescription for strung-out suits is a five-minute breathing session in a Bay Street boardroom turned ashram, or a 10-day silent retreat in a remote rural sanctuary. Here, an essential shopping list for serious serenity seekers.

The Informer

Columns

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Memoir: I was terrified of having my son circumcised

Memoir: The Last Cut

My son, Ezra, was born last spring—a jarring six weeks early, after more hours of labour than I care to remember. At six pounds, three ounces, he was by far the biggest baby in the neonatal intensive care unit, but to me he was the smallest creature in the world. Eight days later, he was released into the care of his two first-time moms. My partner, Sarah, and I were filled with an urgent mix of elation and terror.

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The Informer

Columns

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Dear Urban Diplomat: how do I get my Ford-hating coworkers to stop mocking me?

Dear Urban Diplomat: Ford National

(Image: Nisarg Lakhmani)

Dear Urban Diplomat,
I’m a supporter of the Fords. When people badmouthed them at work, I stood up for them. Now that Tory’s mayor, my colleagues continue to rip on me. My boss is in on it too, so I have nobody to complain to. I feel like my only option to get respect is to ask one of them to go outside and settle it. Should I?

—Ford National, East York

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The Informer

Columns

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Dear Urban Diplomat: should I call the cops on my neighbour, the parking-permit cheat?

Dear Urban Diplomat: Parking Narc

(Image: Lynn Kelley Author/Flickr)

Dear Urban Diplomat,
Two doors down from our semi, there’s an older—but able-bodied!—man who runs a contracting business with his two able-bodied adult sons. Their vehicles all have accessibility parking permits, which allow them to park on either side of the street, regardless of which side is “on” that month. I suspect pass-related fraud. Should I tell someone?

—Parking Narc, Bloorcourt

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The Informer

People

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Ten things Ron Sexsmith can’t live without

The melancholy singer-songwriter releases his new album, Carousel One, next month. Here, the 10 things he can’t live without

Ten things Ron Sexsmith can’t live without

1 My ushanka
I have a hard time finding hats because I have a really big head. I bought this furry one at Eddie Bauer at the Eaton Centre. I live near Trinity ­Bellwoods, and I love walking around looking like Dr. Zhivago.

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The Informer

Features

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Puckheads: inside the crazed arenas of the GTHL

The world’s largest amateur hockey organization is also a breeding ground for unscrupulous coaches, raging parents and miserable preteens

Puckheads

Sometimes during my 11-year-old son’s hockey games, usually in the second period when the play has settled into a rhythm but before the pressures of the clock begin to swell, I do calculations in my head. Not stats about assists or goals. Instead, I tally these sorts of things: the hours logged in gridlock getting to the game, the pages of math homework that still need to be completed later that night, the likelihood my kid’s head will someday be driven into the boards, the minutes he might spend in the penalty box should he chirp at the ref, and the time the alarm will need to be set for the next morning so I can drive him to his 8 a.m. practice.

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