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Innovation: James Kudelka’s gorgeous return

Guillaume Côté and Svetlana Lunkina in … black night's bright day … by James Kudelka

Bruce Zinger

National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre
Runs Until
Thursday, November 28, 2013

Choreography by James Kudelka, José Navas, Guillaume Côté and Robert Binet

National Ballet of Canada artistic director Karen Kain launched the Innovation program five years ago. She commissions Canadian dancesmiths to create new works, and if any of the pieces are strong enough to become part of the company's permanent repertoire, so much the better. Friday's show proved that Kain certainly has keepers among this latest crop of home-grown ballets.

The most eagerly anticipated piece was James Kudelka's …black night's bright day…, the first ballet he's created for the company since stepping down as artistic director in 2005. The work is gorgeous, and gives ballerina Heather Ogden the most beautiful role she has ever performed.

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Kudelka has set his ballet to Pergolesi's masterpiece Stabat Mater. Composed in 1736, the text is taken from a medieval poem describing the sorrows of Mary, mother of Jesus, as she witnesses her son's sufferings on the cross. Kudelka has captured the emotional grief of the lyrics in eloquent simplicity.

The ballet is made up of short scenes of mostly solos and duets, each reflecting a different mood. The middle of the piece contains three linked sections which Kudelka calls Stories. Ogden is the mourning woman, while McGee Maddox is the spirit of the departed.

Kudelka has not forgotten about the light that lies at the end of the darkness of grief. Piotr Stanczyk performs two solos filled with hope that is expressed through jump turns, gallops and hops.

The use of port de bras throughout the work is exquisite. Each vignette features a unique position of the arms that is an expressive metaphor of mood. And …black night's bright day… is made all the greater by the presence of iconic early music British soprano Dame Emma Kirkby and the impressive Canadian countertenor Daniel Taylor. Live performances for a ballet by artists of this international calibre is truly a gift.

José Navas has produced another stunner in Watershed. He took seriously the mandate to produce a work for the company, and his piece features a whopping 32 dancers. Navas comes from the world of contemporary dance, yet he creates on-point choreography as if to the manner born.

His music is Benjamin Britten's Four Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes. The swirling choreography captures the restless energy of water, an ebb and flow of ceaseless motion.

Both men and women sport charcoal blue tutus, which give heft to the bodies. The tutus fill the stage more than a body alone and add cunning nuance to the water and seabird imagery.

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It is no wonder that Kain decided to tuck into the program a marvellous new work by principal dancer Guillaume Côté. Being and Nothingness (Part 1) was created for fellow principal dancer Greta Hodgkinson, who premiered the solo at Festival Ballet Providence in her native Rhode Island in October.

Beneath a naked light bulb, as pianist Edward Connell performs the fourth movement from Philip Glass' Metamorphosis I-V, a woman struggles with the possibilities of her self-identity. Côté was inspired by existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's idea of nothingness, and his agitated choreography reflects the woman's uncertainty.

Hodgkinson is a brilliant mover. Her fluid body negotiates through the staccato limb thrusts and intricate hand gestures with ease and precision, all caught in the web of Glass's repetitive music.

Robert Binet is only 21, but shows a maturity beyond his years with Unearth. That he can manoeuvre 14 dancers with such assurance is a testament to his burgeoning talent. His choreography is crisp and clean.

His Unearth explores the concept of inertia, or the complacency that occurs in advanced civilizations which have lost the curiosity to move forward. In his work, the dancers attempt to grow beyond the inert state to find the excitement of new discoveries.

His structure is built around the formality of partnering and technical virtuosity. Eye-catching lifts and showy ballet vocabulary are tools to convey a growing sense of energy that runs through the dancers like an electric current.

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To say that Binet has taken on a huge abstract topic is an understatement. He is still at a stage of form over matter, but his willingness to take risks speaks well of the great choreographic career that lies ahead.

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