James Kudelka is widely acknowledged as one of North America’s most innovative choreographers. His mastery of both classical ballet and modern/contemporary dance has earned him commissions from companies—some 25 in all—as stylistically diverse as American Ballet Theatre, Chicago’s Hubbard Street Dance and Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal.
Even as a student at Canada’s National Ballet School Kudelka demonstrated a choreographic interest in exploring innovative approaches. While adept in the classical ballet vocabulary he infuses it with a contemporary sensibility acquired from his intense interest in modern movement idioms.
Kudelka’s work covers an impressive range, from virtuoso pas de deux, through large-scale and always arresting adaptations of such classics as Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Cinderella, to boldly innovative creative collaborations with dancers, designers and musicians.
Kudelka has never been afraid to tackle psychologically challenging subject matter in his story ballets—he views dance as a primary medium of artistic discourse—and through his gift for movement metaphor infuses poetic, emotional meaning into his many non-narrative works.
After nine distinguished years as artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada (1996-2005) James Kudelka continues to undertake collaborative projects that engage and challenge him as a choreographer.
The Man in Black
The Man in Black, originally commissioned by BalletMet Columbus and given its premiere in April 2010, is a celebration of American working-class grit and of the man whose gravely voice embodied it so movingly, Johnny Cash. Six Cash songs – all covers from the later part of his career – are given visual resonance in a suite of dances for an ensemble of three men and a woman, all in cowboy boots. The choreography riffs off several popular American country-western dance styles – line, square, swing, step dancing – retaining their vernacular, almost colloquial character yet generating imagery that complements the songs’ varying moods and emotional undercurrents.
The “Dam your eyes” defiance of the traditional folk song Sam Hall contrasts with the aching melancholy of Trent Reznor’s (Nine Inch Nails) Hurt and heartache of Gordon Lightfoot’s If You Could Read My Mind. Dance chains unravel and reassemble in surprising ways. Formations stomp decisively or glide across the stage as if wafted by a desert breeze. The fluid partnering and sculptural groupings generate a stream of arrestingly poetic images. Rather than portray defined characters, the dancers project a naturalistic immediacy that connects at a visceral level with the spirit of the music. The choreography, like the songs that inspire it, is an ode to the human spirit, socially congenial yet proudly independent; vulnerable yet resilient.
There is an intimacy about it, so I wanted it to premiere in Cincinnati in our smaller studio theatre. It is poignant without being athletic. It is brilliant without being showy. It has precision without technical fireworks. The work expresses moments in life that we all know, where we have experienced disappointment, loss, and from there found humor. Obviously Kudelka is a master choreographer whose life experience, combined with years in the studio, creating movement to explore truth and address brave unspoken ideas and emotions, inform his work and drive its intensity and unexpected punch. When I watch this work I think, 'Kudelka has nothing more to prove and so has found a place of resolve and the place where it's no longer about trying to impress the audience.' The work is a blending of masters of song, words, tone, mood and movement, and a deepening of each genre by existing together. I cried and laughed when I saw Man in Black and wanted to see it again immediately.
-- Victoria Morgan, Cinicnnati Ballet CEO and Artistic Director