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An Inventive Life in Motion

James Kudelka is one of the most frequently produced freelance choreographers. It's all about love, sex and death, he says.

May 04, 1997|Jennifer Fisher | Jennifer Fisher is a frequent contributor to Calendar

It seems that everyone wants a piece of James Kudelka these days--or, more precisely, everyone in the dance world wants a piece by James Kudelka, the Canadian choreographer whose works veer from the ineffably beautiful to the disturbingly dark, while always retaining the rigor and elan of classical ballet. Critics have called him "the most imaginative choreographic voice to come out of ballet in the last decade" and "the next great voice of ballet vocabulary." More than once, the word "masterwork" has been summoned, most recently for his significantly overhauled "Nutcracker" and a bracing new ballet to Vivaldi's "Four Seasons."

At 41, Kudelka has certainly been one of the most frequently produced freelance choreographers, with dozens of works in the repertories of major dance companies. In the last year alone, Kudelka ballets were seen in New York, Montreal, Paris, Mexico City, Geneva and Birmingham, England. Not to mention Kudelka's home company in Toronto--the National Ballet of Canada--where he first came to train as a dancer at the age of 10, and where he recently made the leap from artist-in-residence to artistic director.

In Southern California, the range of atmospheres found in Kudelka works can be glimpsed in mixed programs of companies on tour this season. Les Grands Ballets Canadiens included his "Desir,' a series of sumptuously romantic duets to Prokofiev, in its Luckman program last month; and Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, will present his "Ghosts," a one-act ballet full of small ironies done to several Beatles songs, on May 7 at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. In July, Kudelka's "Cruel World" will be on an all-Tchaikovsky program by American Ballet Theatre at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Kudelka himself hints at one reason his ballets resonate so widely when he flatly states his themes: love, sex and death.

"I mean, that's basically what it's all about, isn't it?" he says on the phone from his office at the National Ballet of Canada. "We're all trying to lose control in sex, you know--fall in love, and we're all trying to get control before we die."

And in Kudelka ballets, there are myriad ways that the love-sex-death territory is traversed, all of which tend to tilt away from his classical base, literally and speedily, without losing ballet's balancing properties.

'I knew I wanted to be a choreographer from a very, very young age," Kudelka says, recalling the years in which he was steeped in a proper, British-style ballet at Toronto's National Ballet School. "I thought I was learning a language when I learned ballet, I wasn't just learning forms."

It didn't take him long to know that strict ballet language wasn't enough to say all he wanted to say about love, sex and death. He cites his very first influences as Balanchine (whose work was being performed around him) and "Star Trek" ("I was 10!"). He joined the National Ballet of Canada at 16, quickly earning the title of soloist and eventually contributing pieces to the company. But his real coming of age involved fleeing his hometown for the more experimental Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal, and incorporating movement strategies from the modern dance world: contractions, spirals and what he calls "non-posing and moving through things."

Over the years, certain Kudelka hallmarks have emerged: emotionally intense scenes evoking an individual's isolation from a group, dysfunctional families and doomed romances, all of which play out in complex choreographic patterns, with quick changes of direction and almost-twisted partnering moves. Many dance writers have connected his work to his "personal demons," calling him angst-ridden, shy and always on guard.

On the phone, however, it seems Kudelka's public persona has taken on other characteristics of his dances. He has the mildly precise tones of proper Canadian speech but laughs easily; and he switches topics quickly, mid-sentence, while managing to maintain an organic conversational flow. You're challenged to keep up, and always taken in interesting directions.

ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie says that Kudelka is always looking for the next step. "He truly evokes a strong image and aesthetic that people either like or don't like. They may not know that the dancers are doing something horrendously difficult, but it looks incredibly human; they understand it. I've found that with 'Cruel World' that audiences are pretty consistently wowed. They're like--whew! Either through exhilaration or exhaustion, you know?"

For dancers, Kudelka's rehearsal methods are notoriously exhausting. He's often said that a tired dancer is a creative dancer--that fatigue eliminates old ways of thinking and leads to deeper interpretations. "I think I've pulled back on that a little now," he says. "It would be hard for the dancers to believe it, because I still make very, very difficult ballets, but I'm paying more attention to building in rest periods along the way."

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