Friday, August 15, 2014

Dancing With Puppets and Pulling the Strings: James Kudelka's Malcolm

 James Kudelka (right), and Malcolm. (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

James Kudelka danced with a puppet this year. Malcolm was his name and while their dance wasn’t quite a pas de deux there was no mistaking theirs was a unique partnership. Kudelka might have seemed in control of the movements, but it was more Malcolm pushing him into new theatrical territory. With a puppet quite literally in his hands, no strings attached, Kudelka has moved beyond the boundaries of traditional dance performance, eschewing the kinetic to focus more on the art form's more subtle, expressive side as well as it's capacity for creating an empathetic relationship with its audience. It's something of an emerging trend right now. On the West Coast, choreographer Crystal Pite has been incorporating puppets into her work of late, including her re-interpretation of Shakespeare's The Tempest – The Tempest Replica – which Canadian Stage presented in Toronto in April. In Quebec, Robert Lepage has long used Japanese-inspired puppets in his theatrical productions. On Broadway, War Horse created a sensation last season with machine-driven puppets which helped to tell a story of loss of innocence and the brutality of war. Today's puppets, in other words, aren't just child's play. With Kudelka, to get back to the point, the puppet is a conduit for intimacy, stuffed cloth made substantial, and in more ways than one.

One of Canada’s most established and internationally recognized contemporary choreographers, Kudelka is better known for creating dark and sexually charged ballets, among them a controversial dance version of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening and a macabre interpretation of Swan Lake, both featuring rape scenes and both created for his alma mater, the National Ballet of Canada. While he started his career more than 40 years ago as a dancer, since turning to choreography full time in the late 1980s, Kudelka has usually remained hidden, both behind the scenes, and behind big, borrowed narratives which have afforded him an outlet for his creativity. Malcolm is different. In this 45- minute work, Kudelka is not only a visible part of the performance, he is the author, director and choreographer rolled into one. The story, as much as one exists in a piece of non-verbal theatre, is his and his alone, and it touches on love and loss and grief and anger –grown-up themes which the mute voice of the puppet is able to articulate.

The performance, which took place in February (2014) at The Citadel in Toronto's Regent Park, was a world premier presentation of Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie, the Toronto company run by the husband and wife team of Bill Coleman and Laurence Lemieux which commissioned the work as a way of giving Malcolm, first introduced by Kudelka in 2009 as part of a smaller work also presented by Coleman and Lemieux and revived briefly in 2011, a bigger platform. A big, bold, bright idea. Kudelka is their choreographer in residence, a position held since decamping from the National Ballet of Canada, where formerly he was artistic director, and following a hiatus spent away from dance in rural Ontario where Kudelka, with his late partner, took up baking bread. Kneading the dough, not to mention a break from his formal training in ballet, has done wonders for the choreographer considered by many to be among Canada's best. His latest work appears kinder, gentler, more humanistic than what generally had come before. The irony is that it has taken a puppet to make it seem so.

Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh
A childlike puppet with an imperious streak, Malcolm (constructed by Bill Coleman's mother, Nell, a former costume designer) appeared at first as shy, docile, even doleful. But he was, in essence, wilful. Frequently, he darted out from under Kudelka’s watchful eye to scamper out onto the floor and thunder over the keys of the piano being played by Dustin Peters, creator of the score which melded seamlessly with his boisterous antics. Bad Malcolm. Kudelka struggled to rein Malcolm in. He also tried to mollify and comfort him, sensing that Malcolm was possessed of a fiery ball of emotion which exploded without warning. Kudelka’s face registered alarm and also concern as Malcolm gave vent to the inexpressible. The tenderness of their mutual embrace was a dramatic climax, of sorts. Here was an image of the artist gently cradling his art, marvelling at his creation. A symbiotic relationship beautiful to behold.

It is tempting to think of Malcolm as Kudelka's doppelgänger. They were dressed alike, after all, in a costume of pants and shirt created by Toronto fashion label, Hoax Couture. They both performed in bare feet, and they both were bald. That Kudelka was the daddy and Malcolm the son is made apparent when Malcolm leaned in to listen to the heart beating in his maker's chest. The life force invigorated him, inspiring Malcolm to want to explore his world and with an increasing need for independence. At one point, Mini Me and Frankenstein tussled for control. It was not clear who emerged the victor. Puppets are funny that way; they always keep you guessing. And mainly because you never know what they are supposed to be: players or the ones being played?

Throughout history, puppets have served as stand-ins for someone or something else, mouthpieces of other people's thoughts. For millennia, cultures around the world have used puppets for ritual purposes and also for entertainment. The ancient Egyptians called puppets walking statues and buried them along with their kings. Puppets always have played an important role, in this life and presumably the next. That role is symbolic. Puppets, because they can be made to look and act like humans, mirror their makers. More broadly, they also mirror their audiences, their good and bad habits, and their inner most selves. Tricky buggers. Even when performing as actors – or as in this case, dancers – they appear simultaneously to be offering up a critique. Puppets express truths humans are reluctant to say for fear of reprisals. Punch and Judy, for example, were puppets born of revolutionary 17th century England who performed acts of violence which they were able to get away with. The authorities did not want to risk looking foolish for persecuting a toy.

Malcolm is not nearly as naughty as all that. He doesn't speak politics. He doesn't, in fact, speak at all. His communication tool is his soft, everyman's body, and his large, staring eyes. While prone to tantrums, he is essentially a benign puppet who just wants to be loved and accepted for who and what he is. No worries there. Malcolm ended up being nominated for a Dora Mavor Moore award, one of Canada's leading theatre prizes, following its Toronto debut. Ultimately, the piece did not win the prize. But the puppet had made himself known. Anticipation is high as to what Kudelka will do with him next, that is if Malcolm allows him a say in the matter.

 Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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