Good Ideas Fuzzily Realized
One of the problems facing ballet is that too few of its choreographers work from intellectual concepts. James Kudelka, on the other hand, has way too many of them. “The Contract” is a full-length ballet created in 2002 by Kudelka for the National Ballet of Canada, the company he directs. It conflates the story of The Pied Piper with inspiration from the life of Canadian born evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. There’s more than enough material here for two separate ballets and neither idea is particularly illuminated by the other.
Things start off promisingly enough in a realistic old-fashioned community or school hall complete with a tiny curtained stage. The community dances in multiple concentric circles and then the children put on a production of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”. The play within the ballet is deftly handled, and Kudelka wisely lets it speak for itself, keeping his choreography to simple pantomime movement for the children and group reactions of the assembled audience. The play is narrated by an offstage voice, which allows Kudelka to elaborate his themes and make sure the audience knows the plot—the great hurdle for every ballet with an original libretto.
After the play, the community dances again. Kudelka’s dance invention is at his best in the earliest dances where he taps into the ideas of community and religion. He deliberately uses naïve pointe work such as runs in parallel position similar to the restrained palette of pointe work in “Les Noces”; the open arm positions and long black frock coats recall Doris Humphrey’s “The Shakers”.
Will, played by Guillaume Côté, returns. One of the problems of the libretto by Robert Sirman is that it’s awfully hard to show “return” in a ballet without showing the departure as well. We know he’s entering, but we don’t know he’s been here before. He is reunited (evidently) with Dot—Rebekah Rimsay, who is his intended. As he dances, Will has some sort of seizure that is transmitted to the rest of the community in a section that’s clear, if awkward. His twitches looked as if they were a pantomime version of Tourette’s Syndrome, but at least what I thought happened was the same as what was described in the synopsis.
Eva (Martine Lamy) enters, suffused with golden light. She is the company’s senior ballerina and most gifted dance actress. This is her final season before retirement. Kudelka sets a solo to show Eva’s character; her hands flutter to her heart as she rises to pointe, but then she squats in second position and rolls her pelvis. The mix of empathetic spirituality and carnality isn’t crude in Lamy’s expert hands, but she still can’t prevent it from being obvious.
Kudelka’s weakness as a choreographer is his inability to edit his own work; it shows in both the scattered focus of the ballet and its pacing that is alternately dragged-out and abrupt. Eva cures each of the afflicted by a laying-on of hands that is visually stunning the first time but then goes on longer than the entry of the Shades, and pivotal characters are cured somewhere in the mass with no special emphasis. Kudelka rarely directs our attention to what we’re supposed to see; he has the same problem in the group dances that churn and tumble in phalanxes of constant motion.
Later on in the inevitable scene where Will and Eva become lovers the two are dancing awkward if conventional partnering. Without warning, Will undoes his belt and drops his pants. It comes out of nowhere—of course we knew the coupling would happen, but did it have to happen with Côté limping about the stage with his pants around his ankles?
The community’s Elder finds Will and Eva and suddenly—again, we know it’s coming but Kudelka has no buildup to it—the story of Hamelin is repeated as the adults break their contract with Eva and she leads all the children away except Will, who has become lame. Was it from dancing with his pants around his ankles? When Eva is condemned by the adults for sexual relations with Will, the children (and these are real pre-adolescent children, not adults playing children) reappear and follow Eva away as she wears the Pied Piper’s coat. I’m sure Kudelka and Sirman do not mean this, but it doesn’t seem merely as though the children feel she is wronged (as Sirman states in the synopsis). Because of the juxtaposition of themes and the fact that Will is more often grouped with the children than the adults, it looks as if they’re going off with her because they want to have sex too. There are plenty of ideas here, many of them hazardously unclear.
I regret deeply seeing Lamy only towards the end of her career, more still knowing that she is retiring ambivalently, though with grace. Her Tatiana in Cranko’s “Onegin”, a ballet I have no affection for, was shattering. Her performance in Nikolaj Hübbe’s Bournonville settings was so natural that one wants to throw oneself at Kudelka’s feet and beg him to let her stay on just a few months more to be in Hübbe’s setting for the company of “La Sylphide” in November. Côté is the company’s newest principal and undeniably gifted, particularly in classical works. Kudelka gives them both lengthy roles and yet they both come out of the ballet seemingly underused. The supporting roles are even more cryptic; as the Elder, Ryan Boorne gives a forceful performance but with only a single dimension—angst.
Kudelka’s ambition has always been laudable. This is a new full-length production with a commissioned score by Michael Torke (with echoes of Copland), an arresting set designed by Michael Levine and beautifully lit by Kevin Lamotte. Lamotte’s lighting for the laying-on of hands is breathtaking. I’ve never liked the deconstructionist costumes Denis Lavoie has made for Kudelka’s ballets; they tend to alternately constrict the dancer or get in the way. It’s good that the National Ballet supports intellectually ambitious projects; we’re certainly not doing it south of the border. Kudelka’s efforts are also better directed away from more classical works; he can’t resist weighing them down with psychological overtones they can’t support. But Kudelka doesn’t just need a librettist. He needs an editor.
Photographs, from the National Ballet of Canada's production of "The Contract," are by Jack Vartoogian. The leading dancers are Martine Lamy and Guillaume Cote.