James Kudelka thrives on challenges. Whereas some choreographers seem content to play their careers as a set of variations on what has proven successful for them in the past, Kudelka tries strenuously to avoid repeating himself.
It accounts for the extraordinary diversity of the more than 90 works the Canadian choreographer has created over the past 35 years. Even the small sampling of Kudelka works Houston Ballet has previously performed‹There, Below, Musings and The Firebird‹testify to his creative versatility. But Kudelka's resistance to taking the easy route also helps explain why, in developing ideas for his first Houston Ballet commission, he abandoned his first choice of score‹Bohuslav Martinu's Symphony No. 2‹in favor of American composer Philip Glass's Symphony No. 8. The reason? "It began to look in my head like a ballet I'd already made."
As a creative artist, James Kudelka defies categorization. On the one hand, he has a deep respect for classical ballet, and yet‹unusually for a choreographer reared in its traditions‹can switch into a visceral contemporary style, trading pointe shoes for bare feet and ballet's fleet lightness for powerfully weighted modernism. Of the some 20 companies for which Kudelka has choreographed, more than a third would self-identify as modern dance/contemporary.
Musicality in its broadest sense is fundamental to Kudelka's craft, although the ways he responds to music vary considerably. And what a catalog: Tallis, Purcell, Vivaldi, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Bart‹k, Hindemith, Britten‹all the way to contemporary composers John Adams and Michael Torke‹two commissioned scores‹ and now Philip Glass. He has even choreographed to The Beatles.
Kudelka has also gained a reputation as a narrative choreographer. Apart from his bold refashioning of such full-length 19th-century classics as The Nutcracker and Swan Lake and adaptations of literary/dramatic sources‹among them Henry James's Washington Square, Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening and Eugne Labiche's An Italian Straw Hat‹Kudelka has also probed the possibilities of dance narrative. The Actress is a touching portrait, told through flashbacks, of a ballerina at the end of her career. The Contract draws on Robert Browning's The Pied Piper of Hamelin and the often scandalous life of 20th-century evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson to create a disturbingly original dance-drama.
Yet, capable storyteller though he is, Kudelka more often inhabits a fertile territory somewhere between literal description and absolute abstraction. In these plotless works there are identifiable human implications and elements of drama, a rich psychological undertow of emotional meaning, but not anything that could be rendered into an easy synopsis. Kudelka's Little Dancer promises to fall into this genre.
During Kudelka's years as artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada (1996-2005), the company described his works as "meditations on the classic themes of love, sex and death." Kudelka is often characterized by his interest in the dark, problematic aspects of the human condition. Not everything is beautiful in his ballets. Yet it would be an injustice to neglect Kudelka's lighter, occasionally almost ecstatic side: witness the spiritual rapture of There, Below. Kudelka also has a wry wit and romantic sensibility as shown in his delightful version of Prokofiev's Cinderella, choreographed for Canada's National Ballet in 2004 and now, too, in the repertoires of American Ballet Theatre and Boston Ballet.
Little Dancer, however, following the music's lead, tends to the darker side of the emotional spectrum. Glass's Symphony No. 8, composed in 2006, has three movements of progressively shortening duration‹roughly twenty, twelve, and seven minutes, respectively. They journey from a dramatically assertive opening followed by urgently propellant rhythms into a passacaglia-form second movement that gives way to a slow final movement without obvious resolution. Says the choreographer, with typical self-mockery: "I'm very attracted to the structure. It goes deeper and deeper into torture. It's so Kudelka."
The ballet's title‹and a recurrent choreographic motif‹is derived from French artist Edgar Degas's once controversial 1881 sculpture, La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans (The Little Dancer of Fourteen Years). Kudelka had already decided he wanted to choreograph a work devoid of the athletic overhead lifts and tosses he is often noted for. In Glass's music, he has found a score that prompts lateral, rather than vertically-oriented movement. The massing of forces reflects the score's own reductive progression; a first movement ensemble of a dozen men, a mixed-gender second movement that includes partnering but eschews romance, and a final pas de deux that never leaves the floor.
Kudelka arrived in the rehearsal studio with a clear sense of the work's overall mood and structure but the movement itself emerged from the meeting of choreographic genius and responsive interpreters, a creative alchemy that finds no parallel in the other performing arts and can only ignite when each party in the equation inspires the other.
From Kudelka's perspective, Houston Ballet's dancers were all he could have wished for. "I couldn't be happier. They have been wonderful; so present, attentive and intelligent. It's a very elevated energy."
Kudelka is the kind of artist who never calculates how to score an audience "hit." For him, dance is a profound, rigorous and continuing discourse about life itself. He expresses himself through passionately compelling movement and, in return, hopes audiences will be willing to engage.
Author and broadcaster Michael Crabb is the dance critic of the Canadian daily, The National Post.