The chill is over: National Ballet artistic director Karen Kain welcomed James Kudelka back into the fold Tuesday as she unveiled a 2013-2014 season that includes a premiere of a new piece by the choreographer who left the company in 2005 – as well as three of his story ballets.
"His relationship with the company has changed and matured," Kain said in an interview. "He decided to leave; he had to go through a bunch of stuff and he's now in a different place. I think it was a good time to ask him to come back."
Kudelka served as artistic director from 1996 to 2005 before he left and opened a bakery in a Southern Ontario village. More recently, he has been making more ballet than bread, working with Ballet B.C. and joining as resident choreographer Toronto's Coleman-Lemieux & Compagnie, where he was busy in rehearsals on Tuesday and unavailable to comment.
The new piece will mark his first work created for the National since his departure. Kain paved the way for his return in 2011, when she added to the repertoire Man in Black, a 2010 piece Kudelka created for a company in Columbus, Ohio.
The new unnamed ballet is part of a mixed program titled Innovations, featuring three new works, to be performed shortly after the season's launch in November. The other two featured choreographers are the Venezuelan-born and Montreal-based José Navas and Robert Binet, a National Ballet School graduate who is just starting his choreographic career.
Kudelka, who clearly never relished the administrative side of the role, left the company just as it made the tricky move into the new Four Seasons Centre and has said the job "didn't bring out the best of me." At the time, he was named resident choreographer, but the title meant little since he removed himself from the dance world for several years while the company often seemed to distance itself from his reign as Kain established hers. She reached out to the Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky to create a new classic for the company, the highly successful Romeo and Juliet that the ballet is reviving as its March break family show next month.
Still, Kudelka's legacy as Canada's most renowned choreographer of classical ballet is immense: The 2013-2014 season features his Swan Lake, his Cinderella and, of course, his Nutcracker, all created during his years with the company when he reworked the big story ballets for contemporary audiences.
"We have a huge inventory of his works; they are works he created to serve the company in terms of box office," Kain said. "[He gave] us versions of the classics that would anchor our seasons and give us generations of dancers who would measure themselves against these productions. His work has never gone out of the rep. It's all there."
That is why he is now planning a smaller piece, she said, although she would not reveal anything more about the work.
The season will open with Swan Lake, which the company will then revive for March break 2014, and features three other story ballets, Nutcracker, Cinderella and Onegin, the story ballet by the British choreographer John Cranko that is better known in its operatic version, Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. As well as Innovations, there are two other mixed programs: unusually, Kain has paired Azure Barton's sparse 2009 work Watch Her with a revival of A Month in the Country by the famed British choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton. Both that, and Onegin, are works that require mature talents older than the Romeo and Juliets: Kain points out it is her job not only to please subscribers but to program work that will challenge her dancers.
The third mixed program features a reworking of Michel Fokine's 1911 ballet Le Spectre de la Rose, by the young Stuttgart Ballet choreographer Marco Goecke, as well as pieces by the American choreographers Jerome Robbins and William Forsythe.
The mixed programs can be a hard sell with single-ticket buyers, while too much reliance on the war-horse story ballets can bore regular subscribers: Kain's job is a delicate balancing act.
"I need to develop the artists and give them the kind of careers they deserve; I need to inspire them and motivate them [but I also need] to inspire the subscribers and get the single-ticket buyers."
Innovation returns to the ballet
Artistic director Karen Kain programmed the National Ballet's first Innovation program in 2009. It was a risky call – three world premieres, by Canadian chorographers Peter Quanz, Sabrina Matthews and Crystal Pite. I wrote at the time that Kain must have breathed a sigh of relief when the audience responded well.
It's well known that full-length story ballets appeal to the medium's notoriously conservative core audience. Innovation proved to Kain that there is an audience for audaciously contemporary ballet. Innovation 2009 attracted 82 per cent capacity, which is formidable for three world premieres by non-marquee names.
Pite's Emergence became the evening's darling and grew into a monster hit. At the 2009 Dora Mavor Moore Awards, the work swept all four dance categories. Everywhere it has been performed, critics have showered Pite and the National dancers with raves.
Emergence conjures up the hidden world of insects as a metaphor for human existence. A recurring theme in Pite's choreography is the place of the individual within the group. But her focus is not downside as in mob mentality and peer pressure. Rather, the always original Pite looks at collective consciousness as a strange and wonderful thing.
Kain had three new works that she could program separately or together, and Emergence has proved to be useful in this regard. Kain brought it back in 2010 on a mixed program with George Balanchine's Serenade and Wayne McGregor's Chroma.
This season, Emergence is back again, now on a double bill with James Kudelka's acknowledged classic The Four Seasons (March 20-24). The Four Seasons, which premiered in 1997, is considered not only Kudelka's masterpiece, but a signature work for the company. In just four short years, Emergence is approaching the same status.
This coming season's Innovation program (Nov. 22-28) features three Canadian choreographers in different phases of their careers. Prodigy Robert Binet is a recent graduate of Canada's National Ballet School. Montreal's acknowledged contemporary master José Navas, 48, has only recently started to choreograph ballet dancers. James Kudelka, 57, is the wily ballet veteran.
Kain has her fingers crossed. One new hit would be great. Three would be the stars and moon.