Sunday, January 31, 2016

Back to School: James Kudelka At Ryerson University

Choreographer James Kudelka working with dancers from the Ryerson Theatre School. (Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh)

Ryerson Theatre School scored a coup when it secured James Kudelka to choreograph its annual student showcase for five performances in Toronto this past November. A former artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, Kudelka has created large scale works for classical dance companies and more experimental pieces for modern and contemporary troupes across the continent. As a dancer, he has performed with ensembles and alone with a puppet. Last year, at age 60, he directed his first play while maintaining his credentials as a baker of artisanal bread. Always up to a challenge, Canada's self-described sex and death choreographer was eager to accept the Ryerson University invitation if only because it allowed him, again, to do something new. The challenge was to work with 57 third- and fourth-year students with varying degrees of dance and stage experience and make them look like seasoned professionals. He pulled it off. Kudelka Meets Ryerson Dances 2015 emerged as an expertly designed work of abstract dance performed with commitment by a group of young amateurs.

Ingeniously, Kudelka crammed all the dancers into one, huge, sprawling work of 90 minutes duration that ensured attention was focused on the strength of the group as opposed to any perceived weaknesses of individual performers. Unusual for a choreographer known for his musicality, he also created the work without a score, using the sound of the dancers – their breathing and synchronized shuffling – to create phrasing. John Gzowski and William Fallon helped with the sound design, while Simon Rossiter did the lighting and Aubrey Rothman the easy-wear costume design. Toronto independent dancer and choreographer Laurence Lemieux, a frequent Kudelka collaborator, oversaw the rehearsal direction.

Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh
Scoreless dances are not new. Quebec's Jean-Pierre Perreault had done something similar with Joe, his 1984 ensemble piece in which the "music" was the sound of the dancers rhythmically stomping their feet in unison. Last spring, European choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker debuted My Breathing is My Dancing, a work examining how breath animates space and concretizes the dancing impulse. Combining breath, silences and the percussive beat of on-the-spot jumping, Kudelka might have been trying to make a philosophical point about dancing to the sound of your own body. Or he might just have been trying to keep down costs. Whatever the impulse, by getting the dancers to be their own source of music Kudelka skirted another potential problem arising from working with students with different dance backgrounds and experiences. He made them all look musical. Watching them you weren't aware of limitations. What you saw was empowerment: a group dance with a collective identity rooted in co-operation.

The shared action of the dancers had a mesmeric quality, easily drawing you in. Dancing in unison, they created lines and patterns as well as large abstract shapes that, on their own, shouldn't have been dramatic but somehow were. Meaning was implied, not stated, and it rose from contrasting group formations and soloists, and also from ensembles consisting of all men that contrasted with those composed only of women. The dance also made way for a male-female duet emphasizing partnering skills. Even within a group setting, each dancer had a role to play in figuring out how to find meaning in a simplified gesture and make it read to the back of the theatre. You couldn't grandstand and fall out of the rank and file. Interpretation became a matter of commanding a presence and projecting it from the inside out. Facial expression, including eye movement, was subtle but impactful. Kudelka had taught them well.

As for the work itself, it stands on its own merits, and could easily be revived for performance by professional dancers, including members of a ballet company. Kudelka has included a passage of pointe work and allowed for virtuosic displays of individual performance within a disciplined ensemble. The possibilities are endless even though the original premise – creating a dance on an uneven field of dance talent – appeared to be restrictive. Give it an A.

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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