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.
Set to Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto, "The Heart of the Matter" portrays incompatibility between the sexes through formal group motifs for 20 dancers: the women primly stalking, palms pressed together, like chic nuns, while the men indolently swagger, one arm swinging, like smug jocks.
Varying the group statements are two unusual pas de deux. In the first, the dancers closely circle one another, always in each other's orbit but never touching. In the second, the familiar conventions of the supported adagio are reversed, yielding a depiction of manipulation and exploitation in which male and female are equally victimized.
Joffrey dancers Denise Jackson and Philip Jerry have been cast in both Kudelka works and speak with enthusiasm about his creative sophistication. To Jackson, "He's a master of understatement. His work is very internal, perhaps not introverted but not (displaying) an outward kind of theatricality."
"There's always some sort of mood being established," she explains, "an inner tension that you feel. But he's not telling a story. I know he wants the shape of the choreography to speak."
"I think we had a tendency for a while to act it," says Jerry of early "Heart of the Matter" rehearsals. "So he had to put the reins on us and say 'Just work with the body--don't act.' "
Jackson reveals that the Joffrey dancers never really knew what Kudelka envisioned. "He fit the sections of the dance together like a puzzle," she remembers, "but didn't talk about the whole piece, what he was trying to say with it."
"He didn't want to get too specific with us," Jerry adds. "It would have locked us in and locked him in, too. By leaving it vague, he left us leeway to find our own way."
A choreographer himself, Jerry appreciates the subtlety of construction and technique in Kudelka's pieces, plus "the musicality, focus and control. The use of spiral movements and the whole fluidity of back is very different--yet he follows a true ballet approach. The women's steps could not be done in soft shoes. I think he's unique."
So does Robert Joffrey, who emphasizes that Kudelka's classical heritage hasn't prevented him from achieving an unorthodox movement language. "He's done a lot of modern dance in the last few years but his basic style is balletic," Joffrey comments. "It works deep into the plie , yet is very torso-oriented--uses the whole body, including the head. It's very striking rhythmically but also gets into the deep quality of the music. And it doesn't look like anybody else.
"There aren't many who choreograph at the moment who are that individual who come from a balletic background."
Kudelka describes his style in terms of "more freedom in the upper body, so that ballet dancing becomes an emotional form and not just a virtuoso form. I love virtuosity if it makes me feel something. But I've been inspired by the Lynn Seymours of the world--dancers who have two things going on at the same time--so I try to show that there's an emotion behind the virtuosity that tells us something about the person we're watching."
In one "Heart of the Matter" pas de deux, Kudelka holds the dancers in a double (mirror-image) arabesque for 32 counts--a passage Jackson calls "so excruciatingly slow it makes you uncomfortable watching it. Yet it creates such tension, such a sense of tremendous energy held back, it pulls the focus of the ballet to a fine pinpoint."
Kudelka sees the same passage as both a kinesthetic and existential experience. "When the dancers are standing in arabesque, they're holding their breath so therefore the audience holds its breath--and on another level they're really testing each other and not just doing a step," he says.
Similarly, he equates the extreme demands (in technique and stamina) on the leading male in "Passage" with the ballet's theme and structure. "It's about exhaustion," he explains, "it's about spending your emotional energy on other people to the point where you collapse, so there's a parallel between what I've asked him to do and the meaning of the work."
"My ballets are terribly difficult to do," he admits, "and it's often because I believe the point of exhaustion is when people move the way they really move. All the pretenses drop away and they really start seeing that it's got to come from another place that's very much deeper inside. So I try to exhaust the dancers pretty early in the piece so they can't just use their eyebrows to express its meaning.
"I want to know what's circulating inside. For me, you have to do a step with breath and blood. In a lot of my technique you can't even be on balance--you have to be willing to fall into the next thing."
For all his deep seriousness of purpose, Kudelka is quick to make fun of his downbeat image. "I've never been able to figure out how to put my works together in a (full- evening) program that wouldn't leave the audience wanting to kill itself afterwards," he jokes.
He also laughs off any suggestion that he's a supercerebral Svengali in rehearsals. "I was told by one of the (Joffrey) dancers that it looked like I had prepared a lot when I came to the group," he recalls. "I hadn't. In fact, a hell of a lot of the time, I really don't know what I'm doing until it's done.
"I trust a friend in the studio and say 'Please, tell me what I'm doing so I can continue.' "