James Kudelka: The Pied Piper of Toronto

July 19, 2007
James Kudelka, now in his ninth season as artistic director of The National Ballet of Canada, has transformed a company once known for its stately productions of the classics into a dynamic, risk-taking, forward-looking troupe. At the core a classicist, albeit with modernist leanings, Kudelka has not abandoned tradition but given the Toronto-based company a fresh image—youthful, creative and adventurous.
Kudelka has put a personal stamp on restagings of such classics as
The Nutcracker
(1995), Swan Lake (1999) and The Firebird (2000). He has added major Balanchine ballets to the company’s store of works by such 20th century masters as Ashton, Cranko, Forsythe, MacMillan, and Tudor and has ambitions to build “a Robbins gallery.” Meanwhile, he has prodded his dancers into absorbing new movement idioms by commissioning works from Canadian modern dance choreographers Serge Bennathan and the late Jean-Pierre Perreault, and he has fostered choreographers from within NBC, such as Dominique Dumais and Matjash Mrozewski.
Kudelka, 49, is the first choreographer of international distinction to head NBC. He began choreographing for the company in the mid-1970s while still one of its dancers. Kudelka has created more than 80 works—solos, duets, large ensemble pieces—for 21 different companies, both classical and modern. Apart from NBC and Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens (his creative home from 1981 to 1990), these have included American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, and The Australian Ballet.
Kudelka’s ballets exude instinctive but not slavish musicality and a strong allegiance to classical vocabulary. Complexity (particularly in footwork and port de bras), swiftness, subtle dynamics, and wildly athletic partnering are recurrent choreographic hallmarks. An immersion in modern dance at a 1980 seminar in Banff, Alberta, opened him up to a more visceral, rooted physicality. Says veteran company ballerina Martine Lamy: “James has an endless capacity for new movement; he totally reinvents himself with each ballet. It’s just amazing the diversity of movement that comes out of his brain.”
In recent years Kudelka, born in rural Newmarket, Ontario—he sometimes likes to kid that he’s a farm boy—and trained at The National Ballet School, has begun to teach company class. “It’s almost like the way I understand Balanchine worked in class,” says 23-year-old Guillaume Côté, NBC’s youngest principal and one of its brightest hopes. “You sense James exploring, challenging. He’s incredibly intelligent and he pushes people always to be thinking, to be aware of yourself in your own body.”
In 2002, Lamy and Côté created lead roles in
The Contract
, the 80-minute, psychologically layered and sexually pixilated Kudelka ballet that NBC will present at New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music, April 5 to 9. The Contract is a bold, controversial reworking of The Pied Piper of Hamelin—but without the piper. Instead Eva, a mysterious spiritual healer, penetrates a tight-knit evangelical community whose young people have been smitten by a strange spasmodic disorder, introduced earlier by a returning prodigal son. That night, having effected a cure, the alluring Eva is discovered in delecto flagrante with the young prodigal and promptly repudiated by the elders. The ballet begins with an enactment of the Pied Piper story by the children of the community—18 National Ballet School students. At the ballet’s close they follow Eva, her charisma intact, as she is banished from this unforgiving, repressively puritanical sect.

The Contract
, like a number of Kudelka’s ballets—Spring Awakening, The Miraculous Mandarin, Washington Square—explores personal and social dysfunction and sexual phobias. In a not uncommon reaction to the work of a choreographer who repudiates shallow frippery and false sentimentality, The Contract split Toronto critics and audiences. It was generally acknowledged, however, that Kudelka had bravely probed the conventions and extended the boundaries of full-length narrative ballet, generating intense discussion and excitement—just what he believes a creative ballet company should do.
Kudelka’s refashioning of the company is partly an act of obligatory belt tightening. When his predecessor Reid Anderson left for the Stuttgart Ballet, Kudelka inherited a company struggling to adapt to shrinking government subsidies and a grim economic environment. By Kudelka’s fourth season the fulltime roster had dipped from 60 to 50. Today there are 57 dancers.
Although a number of longtime NBC dancers, now middle-aged, have survived to become valued character artists—Kudelka often finds ways to integrate them into his new works—he relishes and encourages ambitious, hard-working young talent. Only 14 company members predate Kudelka’s arrival. All 27 corps members are his hires. Although Canadians constitute a majority, the dancers hail from 14 countries—South Africa to France—with seven Americans forming the second largest national contingent. Twenty-three of the 57 dancers have received at least part of their training at the associated National Ballet School.
Much as he delights in young talent, Kudelka is no star-maker. “I want people to see The National Ballet Company,” he emphasizes. This does not always sit well with older dancers or personality-obsessed audience members, but it has made NBC a more excitingly unpredictable troupe. Despite Kudelka’s notorious lack of easy, everyday human communication skills and, according to several dancers, a tendency to be over-critical, the creative ferment he has induced in NBC has generally won his dancers’ loyalty.
In any case, the hard-driving Kudelka may be mellowing. Five years ago, mired in the sludge of a torrid, much-publicized unlawful dismissal suit with former longtime principal Kimberly Glasco, Kudelka plunged into depression. At one point, testifying in court, he said that he’d sooner kill himself than reinstate Glasco. As a therapeutic distraction he took up artisan bread baking. “It really helped pull me through,” says Kudelka. Friends, and the occasional NBC donor, can attest to his baking skills. Emboldened by his baking triumphs, he now hopes to build a traditional brick oven in his country home.
Kudelka also discovered the emotional rewards of canine ownership. Emma, a lovable Golden retriever, and Wally, her tale-wagging West Highland cohort, are familiar sights around NBC’s large, well-appointed headquarters. Gnawed bones and assorted dog toys litter Kudelka’s office floor.
Today, despite the job’s routine stresses, Kudelka is remarkably sanguine. “It has helped me grow as a person and advance myself as a choreographer. It has been a good marriage.” He is also buoyed by the runaway success of the wickedly hilarious Cinderella he created last spring and is looking forward to increasing NBC’s foreign touring. He is fiercely proud of his dancers and wants them to be seen.
Kudelka’s pride is justified. With both eyes firmly focused on the bigger picture, he has provided visionary leadership through challenging times. He has proved that a classical ballet company can honor tradition while accumulating the creative momentum that makes it artistically vibrant and relevant.
Michael Crabb is the Toronto-based dance critic of the Canadian daily,
The National Post. His most recent book is An Instinct for Success: Arnold Spohr and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Toronto, 2002.