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Dancing to nature

Acclaimed choreographer tries to 'tame the music' in RWB première Vespers

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/5/2017 (950 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Ballet fans will be ushered into a magical, mythological-infused world where a kingdom of animals and humans happily co-exist when the Royal Winnipeg Ballet presents its world première of James Kudelka’s Vespers.

But the acclaimed Canadian choreographer says his newest full-length ballet is not "merely" a memory piece evoking the idyllic Ontario farm he grew up on as a child, but a poignant tale for the times, its own genesis rooted in its sweeping score of Monteverdi’s 1610 choral masterpiece.

Evelyn Hart with Horse (Liam Caines) and dancer Dmitri Dovgoselets.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Evelyn Hart with Horse (Liam Caines) and dancer Dmitri Dovgoselets.

"It came out of trying to tame the music," Kudelka says during an interview at the RWB studios. "I found the sounds of Monteverdi’s music very interesting, and it made me think about the sounds of the world in the 1600s. I wondered how composers made up melodies, and I thought they probably heard birds; and heard rhythms through the movement of animals. I then used my instincts to make it a rich experience that people can dream in, rather than being told what they’re seeing."

Regarded as one of the leading ballet choreographers of his generation, Kudelka first began creating his canon of 50-plus original works while a student at the National Ballet School of Canada. His distinctive re-interpretations of such classics as The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Cinderella have become signature works for the National Ballet of Canada, where he also served as artistic director between 1996-2005, and is currently its artist-in-residence, as well as for Montreal-founded troupe Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie. His large and smaller-scaled ballets created for the National Ballet, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal, Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet, among others, have been lauded for their breathtaking artistry, as well as piercing observations of contemporary life.

RWB artistic director André Lewis, who commissioned the new work three years ago following the success of the company’s production of Kudelka’s The Four Seasons in 2014 — Lewis himself notably made a rare onstage appearance during the RWB’s Ballet in the Park re-staging of the 1997 work that summer — is thrilled with how the creative process that began in earnest last August has unfolded.

"You look at the greats such as (George) Balanchine, who tended to go toward the atmosphere or pure dance movement, and this ballet is a combination of both of those," Lewis says of the 98-minute work. "But ultimately, it’s about pure movement itself."

Vespers is arguably one of the more unusual ballets premièred by the 77-year old RWB. Its 20-member cast includes 10 animals, with the dancers’ heads completely covered with theatrical masks designed by Toronto’s Karen Rodd, depicting a horse, cardinal, bear, ram and others. Kudelka has imagined a fantastical world where creatures interact with human beings as equals, until an apocalyptical Fall splits the two worlds apart as the mortals assert their dominance over their four-legged, and winged friends.

Notably, one of those "humans" is the RWB’s former principal dancer Evelyn Hart, who retired from the company in 2005. The legendary prima ballerina, now 61, appears in the second act as an "everywoman," able to intuitively connect with the animals — particularly the Horse, performed by corps de ballet member Liam Caines, with whom she performs a tender pas de deux atop a banquet table — while ultimately seeking reconciliation between humans and beasts.

Hart praises Kudelka, her former school chum at the National Ballet School, where she studied briefly before continuing her professional training with RWB School prior to joining the troupe in 1976.

"As James gets older, he says that he’s less interested in steps, but more interested in what feeds the steps," says Hart, who hung up her pointe shoes in 2006, and now performs in soft ballet slippers. "It’s really more about what lives inside of you that comes out through the steps, so it’s an extension of what I always do.

"It’s fantastic that I’m being given this opportunity to be an expressive artist, without having to worry about being on pointe, or doing more physical feats. It’s been incredible experience, and very freeing working with James. It’s a soul gift."

Choreographer James Kudelka works with Evelyn Hart during rehearsal as Horse (Liam Caines) looks on.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Choreographer James Kudelka works with Evelyn Hart during rehearsal as Horse (Liam Caines) looks on.

The two artists share a simpatico sensibility, with their parallel careers intersecting during their first collaboration during The Four Seasons as well as during the world première of Love, Sex & Brahms, presented last month in Toronto by Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie.

"I’ve been extremely fortunate that I’ve worked with the greats of my generation, including Karen Kain late in her career, as well as contemporary dancers Susan Macpherson, Margie Gillis, Peggy Baker and Laurence Lemieux, among others," Kudelka says. "But Evelyn is a very, very special performer and I have found her extremely open to the process. And I’m always so impressed, because it’s not really about how much she can do, but how little she has to do.

"And that’s been a beautiful example for the rest of the company to follow. Everyone in the studio is very aware they’re working with someone who remains an important artist in the world."

One might imagine that a ballet grounded in the naturalistic world, especially in an age of ever-growing environmental awareness — or destruction — could be construed a cautionary tale for a brave new age. Kudelka demurs, also denying any overt religious overtones, despite the Baroque score’s liturgical text meaning "evening prayers."

"Nature inspires me, and I do try to thank the land, and have a connection to it," he says. "But if I can create a work of art that just gets people talking about what they’ve seen, then my job is done. And this full-length production gives you time to enter this world, and dream in it a little bit.

"If you open yourself up to thinking about that natural world, and realizing that it all was here first before us, that just makes us all a bit calmer," Kudelka, who lives in the pastoral countryside southwest of Toronto. "And if that also makes us think about being a little more kinder, and gentler with each other, and with the world, then that’s a hopeful thing."

The production also includes a live score performed by Winnipeg’s Camerata Nova with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, costume design by Denis Lavoie, sets by Nick Blais and lighting by Michael Mazzola.

holly.harris@shaw.ca

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