NEW YORK — James Kudelka is scared. After a long, productive but relatively low-profile career as a dancer and choreographer in his native Canada, Kudelka at 30 has suddenly emerged as the flavor-of-the-month in North American ballet.
On April 3, for example, New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff looked at Kudelka's latest creation and then proclaimed in print his "arrival as a choreographer to reckon with on the international scene."
For the first time, Kudelka pieces--"Passage" (1981) and "The Heart of the Matter" (1986)--are being danced across the United States by a major company: the Joffrey Ballet. (Both works will be seen in Los Angeles during the three-week Joffrey season, beginning Wednesday, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.)
In addition, his "Collisions" (to a score by Henry Kucharzyk) is scheduled to premiere on a three-company, Canada-celebrates-Canada gala in mid-August at Expo '86 in Vancouver. After that, there's a new work (to the Schumann Second Symphony) commissioned by San Francisco Ballet for the fall.
Kudelka greets these far-flung opportunities with considerable trepidation. Although he's grateful to the Joffrey for providing a wider audience for his work ("I could do three ballets in Canada and nobody would ever see them here"), he also reveals that the choreographic process is what satisfies him most: "I could work in the studio with the dancers and never have anything performed."
He is also painfully aware that each U.S. ballet season seems to introduce another Boy Wonder: a classical choreographer who receives major, multiple commissions and then returns to obscurity when the hits or masterpieces don't materialize fast enough. One by one they've come--and gone: Peter Anastos, Choo San Goh, John McFall. Now it's Kudelka's turn, and the pressure already shows.
Sitting in an office backstage at New York City Center, he looks at his interviewer's tape recorder as if it will bite him. "I am frightened, OK?," he announces defiantly. "This is a tough year. In Canada, you're never really allowed to succeed and here you must succeed terribly quickly. It's hard. The spotlight means expectations, hype, a whole area that I can't enter into because it would destroy me. I can't go near it.
"It's a bit terrifying to think that this could be just a flash in the pan," he muses about his new Stateside prominence. "But at the same time I know that I've been working away at ballet choreography since I was 14 and that 'The Heart of the Matter' is ballet No. 24, not ballet No. 3.
"Through all the good and bad, the successful ones and unsuccessful ones, I've always kept going--which means that something inside me really does do this, that my happiness and sense of self do not rest on (having) a yearly major success in New York."
Kudelka received his dance training and initial experience as a choreographer with the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto and is currently resident choreographer and principal dancer with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal. In the past, he dealt with career pressures and crises by "disappearing for a while or just dancing more and by learning not to run out and buy the paper the next morning." Right now, he's cutting back on performing to give himself more time alone between choreography assignments.
"Sometimes the only way to make my life make sense," he says, "is to go back in the studio and work--to go to the dark place and make a ballet. Sometimes it's really scary to get yourself together in the studio and just get on with it."
In a period when U.S. ballet remains dominated by Balanchine-style neoclassicism, Kudelka represents a maverick in our midst: someone who approaches dance as an expressive art. Acknowledging that his ballets "aren't aimed for enormous applause; they're designed to be seen more than once," he points to the quality of "emotional resonance" and the themes of love and death as the common ground of his work.
But these concerns are always explored obliquely. Thus the intimate "Passage" (the earliest Kudelka work still performed) and the large-scale "Heart of the Matter" (his most recent achievement) are alike in their sense of narrative suggestion: their ability to evoke dramatic situations, character relationships and points-of-view through a compositional rather than histrionic approach.
Previously staged in the U.S. by American Ballet Theatre II and the Joffrey II, "Passage" traces the relationship between a sacerdotal central figure and five people in turmoil. It's original title ("Angel") and the accompaniment (Thomas Tallis' motet "Spem in alium") signal the spirituality of Kudelka's concept, but his movement is a churning vortex of mime-based gestural motifs and propulsive bravura steps.