Choreographer James Kudelka elevates the National Ballet
Choreographer James Kudelka elevates the National Ballet
A bout 30 years ago, a slight, quiet boy handed in a fatalistic grade-school composition called "Two Sad Wishes.” It was the story of a man who finds a magic lamp, rubs it and asks for two things. Before his delighted eyes, the objects instantly appear—and then, with a thunderclap, they vanish. James Kudelka, now 38, can no longer remember what the two wishes were. But as one of North America’s most sought-after choreographers, he is still obsessed with fortune’s perpetual flux in his haunting and innovative works. The latest is The Actress, a large-scale piece that he has created for the National Ballet of Canada and its most famous dancer, Karen Kain. In the piece, which premiers on Feb. 16, Kain portrays a mature ballerina negotiating the highs and lows of a dancer’s existence—the elation of performance and the loneliness of the dressing room.
The Actress is also, like Kudelka’s earlier works, physically demanding. “It’s hard,” says the choreographer with a trace of a smile. “All my dances are hard.” He has established his reputation with works that, in his words, blend “the weight of modem dance and the clarity of classical ballet.” In fact, Kudelka is equally fluent in the idioms of both. He began as a dancer and choreographer with the National Ballet in the 1970s. But he has also created works for Toronto Dance Theatre, Montréal Danse and other contemporary troupes—as well as companies that blend ballet and modem dance, including New York City’s Joffrey Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet and Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, which was his home company from 1981
to 1990. New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff has called him “the most imaginative choreographic voice to come out of ballet in the last decade.”
In recent years, his pieces for the National have ranged from the lyrical, nearly abstract Musings to last season’s The Miraculous Mandarin, a nightmarish dance drama about child abuse. Mandarin, like some of his other voyages to the dark side of the soul, was not a critical success. But all of his dances hum with physical and emotional complexity. Says Kain, a 24-year veteran of the National Ballet, who inspired Musings as well as The Actress: “There is nothing predictable—ever—in what James does.”
Although a back injury ended Kudelka’s career as a principal dancer in 1986, he began performing character roles with the National last season. Recently, after a long day of rehearsals, a weary stubblechinned Kudelka reflected on his career. He talked about the “little sort of shift” that is taking place in his career. A precocious talent who began choreographing in his early teens, he is used to being thought of as young. But when Coppélia opens this week, he will make his debut in the role of the elderly doll maker Dr. Coppélius. And last year, when he created a piece set to Beatles music for Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, he was stunned to discover that the dancers were not old enough to know the tunes.
Increasingly, he finds that he is more interested in creating works for a wide age range of performers than in concocting “whizbang virtuoso pieces for young dancers.” Pastorale, his emotionally evocative, semi-abstract 1990 ballet for the National, features children, middle-
aged character artists and many beautiful twentysomethings, all giving vivid expression to the music of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.
The Actress, says Kudelka, is another work celebrating a broader spectrum of human experience than is often seen on the ballet stage. He thinks of it as a 43-minute scenes-from-a-life “solo” in which the central character dances with successive partners. The National will stage the work until Feb. 20, with Kain starring in all the evening performances and Martine Lamy playing the lead at the matinees.
While several of the ballefs duets represent rehearsals and performances, some of the most intense scenes take place in the central character’s dressing room. “I think one of the overlying themes of the piece is the loneliness of the performer,” says Kudelka. “Performers have to command a certain independence from everybody in order to be who they are. That tends to leave you out on your own when you’re not in a performing situation.” The ballet also deals with the realities of being a mature dancer. “You get very good at what you do, but you get less resilient,” says the choreographer.
Dance has been Kudelka’s life since he started taking lessons at the age of 5. Raised on a farm near Newmarket, Ont., he was one of she children bom to a Hungarian immigrant and his Ontario-born wife. When James was 10, he left home to attend the National Ballet School in Toronto. Kain, who was a few grades ahead of him there, remembers Kudelka as a diminutive man-faced boy who always carried a briefcase. He joined the National Ballet in 1972 at 16 and soon began choreographing works for the company. But he found it too restrictive in its classics orientation.
He joined Les Grands Ballets Canadiens as a principal dancer in 1981 and became resident choreographer two years later. Working with the smaller, more eclectic company unleashed his creativity. With such internationally acclaimed pieces as In Paradisum (1983), a meditation on mortality inspired by his mother’s impending death from cancer, and Désir (1991), a series of impassioned duets, Kudelka’s career gathered momentum. Two years ago, he returned to a National Ballet that had gone through a number of changes in management, culminating in the 1989 appointment of its present artistic director, Reid Anderson. Along the way, it had evolved into a company with a much stronger contemporary thrust. “Everybody just seems so much more open to whatever I’m up to,” says the choreographer.
Exacting and intense, Kudelka describes himself as someone who used to find it difficult to take pleasure in the present. But he concedes that he is learning to savor his success a little. After the première of The Actress, he will
go to Montreal to remount In Paradisum and then to New York City to create a new work for the American Ballet Theatre.
In his recent works, Kudelka has been expressing his homosexuality and his sense of humor, two facets of his personality that had rarely surfaced in his earlier pieces. Making Ballet, a piece he choreographed last year for Ballet British Columbia, sends up the stiffly archaic traditions of classical dances with clutches of cavaliers and tutu-clad ballerinas. Meanwhile, a male couple in shirts and boxer shorts perform a duet around the perimeter of the stage. Eventually, the other dancers depart and the two men move out to centre stage and take turns gracefully lifting each other. “We have to deal with realities,” Kudelka says of his approach to dance. “I may get in trouble for it at some point but I’m going to show things that are real to me.” And then, sounding very much like the boy who wrote the story of the ‘Two Sad Wishes,” he adds: “I think the trouble’s going to come when I least expect it.”
Karen Kain was just 19 when she first starred in Swan Lake, and she was incredibly nervous. But as a result of that stunning 1970 debut as the Swan Queen with Toronto’s National Ballet of Canada, Kain was promoted straight out of the corps to the rank of principal dancer. Soon, she was touring the world, often partnered by the legendary Rudolf Nureyev. Earlier this month, artistic director Reid Anderson announced that the National Ballet will hold a number of special events in its 1994-1995 season to commemorate the prima ballerina’s 25th season with the company. But one of the celebrations will be bittersweet: at a Toronto gala on Nov. 25, the dancer will perform Swan Lake for the last time. As Kain, now 42, says, it is increasingly difficult to compel her body to “make the shapes” that ballet’s most traditional works demand.
Kain’s last Swan Lake will by no means be her swan song. Her performances remain full of strong athletic daring. But over the years, she has stopped dancing such girlish roles as Use in La Fille Mal Gardée and Swanilda in Coppélia, confining herself to roles better suited to mature dancers.
James Kudelka’s ballet The Actress, which premières this week, is one of several works created especially for her.
Next year, with the National Ballet, Kain will also star in Sir Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country, a one-act 1976 masterpiece that Kain has long wanted to add to her repertoire. “I think I’m very lucky,” says the Hamilton-born ballerina. “I’m able to be the dancer I am and use the qualities I have today as opposed to always trying to recreate something I did in the past.” Artistic director Anderson, meanwhile, says: “I want her to dance as much as she possibly can for as long as she’s having fun doing it.” Keeping her body in peak form has become a more elaborate process than it once was. The warm-ups are longer, she spends more time with a masseur and there is more physiotherapy. “After I’ve practised something three or four times,” she says, “I’d better not do it again because I might hurt myself—I never used to have that feeling. I miss the freedom of taking it for granted that my body was going to do whatever I asked of it.” But, she adds, “I don’t miss the kind of pressure I used to put on myself, I enjoy my work so much more now. On the whole, it’s a lot easier to have the courage to attempt things.” Only a few ballerinas, most notably Dame Margot Fonteyn, who danced until she was 59, have managed to perform through their 40s and beyond. For Kain, who has been married for 10 years to actor Ross Petty (they have no children), it is still “impossible to say” when she will retire. “The day will come when I’ll just know that I’m not able to do it any more, and that’s life.”
At a recent rehearsal of The Actress, several young dancers watched raptly as Kain and Rex Harrington, a principal dancer with the National Ballet, spun and plunged through an exceptionally difficult duet. At the end of the section, there was a burst of the nearly noiseless, heel-of-the-palm applause that dancers standing in the wings use to convey their appreciation of a performance in progress. And then, Karen Kain, a dancer at the height of her eloquence, continued to rehearse.
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