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James Kudelka, choreographer


 

(Compiled February, 1998)

 

Mr. Kudelka is one of North America’s foremost dance artists, universally respected for the quality and depth of his work. As a choreographer, he is rare in his ability to marry a respect for the classical tradition to a comfort with modern movement. He is recognized for his remarkable talent in combining both idioms. This allows him to serve dance companies as diverse as The National Ballet of Canada, Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, Toronto Dance Theatre, and American Ballet Theatre as well as solo artists such as Margie Gillis and Peggy Baker. With nearly 50 original works to his credit, Kudelka has been hailed by New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff as "a major ballet choreographer" and "the most imaginative voice to come out of ballet in the last decade."

Born in Newmarket, Ontario, Mr. Kudelka trained as a classical dancer at the National Ballet School in Toronto and graduated in 1972 to join the National Ballet of Canada. While a soloist he made a strong impression in a number of roles, most notably as Oberon in Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, James in Erik Bruhn’s La Sylphide, Morris Townsend in his own production of Washington Square, the Young Man in Ashton’s The Two Pigeons, in Monotones II and as Michael, the blind boy, in Ann Ditchburn’s Mad Shadows.

Kudelka began choreographing while still a ballet student, his first ballet being to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. He became increasingly absorbed in the creation of dance, developing his ideas from workshop performances to presentations in the National Ballet’s regular season. His early works for the National Ballet of Canada include A Party (1976), Washington Square based on Henry James’s novel and with a commissioned score by Michael Conway Baker (1979), Playhouse (1980) and Hedda (1983), based on Henrik Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler with a specially commissioned score by Norma Beecroft.

In 1981 Kudelka joined Les Grands Ballets Canadiens as a principal dancer. Drawing critical attention for his dramatic stage presence and flair as a dancer, Kudelka was also soon receiving increasing praise for his daring choreography. From 1984 until 1990 he was one of the company’s resident choreographers. His output, while he continued his dance career, was prodigious. For Les Grands Ballets, Kudelka created In Paradisum (1983), an emotionally charged work that is a landmark in his choreographic career. Discussing Kudelka’s movement style, especially evident in In Paradisum, Anna Kisselgoff noted, "The entire body is swept urgently along, a deployment of energy especially effective in Mr. Kudelka’s use of mass movement - his own brand of highly dramatic choral polyphony."

Kudelka’s other ballets for Les Grands Ballets include: Genesis (1982); Dracula (1985), with guest artist Margie Gillis; Alliances I (1984); Collisions (1986) and Le Sacre du Printemps (1987). In March 1988 Les Grands Ballets premiered Kudelka’s La Salle des pas perdus and the following year his Love, Dracula (a reworking of the earlier Dracula) as well as Schéhérazade, a collaboration with David Earle of the Toronto Dance Theatre.

Other major works during this period include The Heart of the Matter (1986); There, below (1989) for BalletMet; C.V. for Montreal Danse (1990) and Fifteen Heterosexual Duets (1991) for Toronto Dance Theatre, which won the Dora Mavor Moore Award.

Kudelka’s also created: Intimate Letters (1981) for solo artist Susan Macpherson; contributions to collectively choreographed Court of Miracles (1983), which was performed for ten years at Christmas by Toronto Dance Theatre; Unfinished Business (1984) for Dancemakers; Death of an Old Queen (1985) for Fortier Danse-Creation and Soudain l’hiver dernier (1988) for Montreal Danse.

Facing the challenge of duet work that began with works like There, below and continued with Pastorale (National Ballet of Canada 1990), Kudelka created Romeo and Juliet Before Parting for Sylvain Lafortune and Peggy Baker for Rhombus Media video and Mirror, in which the couple never touch. Created for the National Ballet of Canada’s Gizella Witkosky and Serge Lavoie, Mirror was specially commissioned by the Hamburg Ballet and premiered at the company’s annual Nijinsky Gala in April 1991.

Kudelka’s relationship with Les Grands Ballets continued with Désir in 1991 and Plaisirs solitaires in 1993.

Kudelka has also choreographed numerous works for dance companies throughout the United States. He was invited by American Ballet Theatre II to create Passage for its choreographic workshop in 1981. Robert Joffrey, the late artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet, was so impressed with the work that he invited Kudelka to stage it for his company in February 1986. Kudelka also created The Heart of the Matter (1986) and Concerto Grosso (Olympic Arts Festival 1988) for the Joffrey Ballet.

Helgi Tomasson, artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet, commissioned Kudelka to create Dreams of Harmony (1986). This work, which Anna Kisselgoff called "a marvelous company ballet" set to Robert Schumann’s Second Symphony, led to further commissions. Kudelka returned to the company to create The Comfort Zone in 1989 and The End in April 1992. Kisselgoff again singled out Kudelka when The Comfort Zone was premiered in New York in 1991, "Mr. Kudelka is a master of his material in a work that explores, with density and richness, an unexpected score: Beethoven’s Triple Concerto for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Op. 56." Kudelka’s The End, set to Johannes Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, was heralded upon its premiere by Allan Ulrich of the San Francisco Examiner: "Daring in its choice of music, enigmatic in its details, challenging in its demands on its dancers, voluptuously confident in its sweep."

In 1991 Mr. Kudelka received a Senior Artist’s grant from the Canada Council that enabled him to take a year away from regular commitments and engage in independent studies.

In July 1992 Reid Anderson, former artistic director of The National Ballet of Canada, invited Kudelka to join the company in the newly created position of Artist in Residence. The appointment placed him in the unique position of not only creating new works for the company but also the opportunity to teach, coach and perform.

As Artist in Residence for the National Ballet of Canada, Kudelka created The Miraculous Mandarin, a dark, psychologically charged and disturbing work which premiered May 5, 1993 at Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre. He was also able to accept commissions for work outside of the National Ballet. During 1993 he created Ghosts, to the music of the Beatles for Montreal’s Les Ballets Jazz and Making Ballet for Ballet British Columbia, a humorous piece which was performed in silence. Kudelka was the 1993 recipient of the Jean A. Chalmers Choreographic Award, presented in recognition of his enormous potential and achievements. In 1994 he created The Actress and Spring Awakening for the National Ballet of Canada, and Cruel World which was premiered by American Ballet Theatre on April 29. These dances are evidence of his extraordinary development as a choreographer and of his profound artistic sensibility at work.

In December 1995 Kudelka presented his brand new production of The Nutcracker to great acclaim. In his review of the premiere Lewis Hertman of the Globe and Mail wrote that the production was "nothing short of brilliant . . . Kudelka cleverly understood how to hold key elements of the traditional Nutcracker while infusing the whole with new life." He received the 1996 Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best New Choreography for The Nutcracker.

James Kudelka was appointed Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Canada on June 1, 1996. His most recent work for the company was The Four Seasons set to Vivaldi’s popular music. John Coulbourn of The Toronto Sun said, "We have seen the future of the National Ballet of Canada - and it is James Kudelka...Kudelka has sculpted a multi-layered work that showcases not just the complexity of Vivaldi’s music, but also the amazing skill of this entire company... In Kudelka’s hands Vivaldi’s work embraces not just the seasons of the year, but the seasons of life." Since his appointment as artistic director he has also had the opportunity to create Le Baiser de la Fée for Birmingham Royal Ballet. This work premiered on September 26, 1996.

Discussing Kudelka’s choreographic language, Lewis Segal of the Los Angeles Times wrote that "Kudelka represents a maverick in our midst: someone who approaches dance as an expressive art." Acknowledging that Kudelka’s ballets "aren’t aimed for enormous applause; they’re designed to be seen more than once," Segal says Kudelka 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."

Robert Joffrey emphasized 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... It works deep into the plié, yet is very torso oriented - uses the whole body, including the head. it's very striking rhythmically but also gets deep into the quality of the music. And it doesn’t look like anyone else."

Judith Green in the San Jose Mercury observed, "Not only is his choice of music beautiful, but he has the uncanny knack for finding movement to match it."

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