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James Kudelka with the puppet Malcolm.Jeremy Mimnagh

Choreography by James Kudelka (in collaboration with Bill Coleman)

James Kudelka's latest work, Malcolm, proves the world-class choreographer still has a surprise or two up his sleeve. Malcolm is a puppet. Canada's Kudelka is the puppeteer.

Since stepping down as artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada in 2005, Kudelka has found a creative home as the resident choreographer with Toronto's Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie. Many of his recent creations have premiered at the CLC intimate theatre in a converted Salvation Army citadel.

He has been experimenting with Malcolm since 2009. Featuring dancer Bill Coleman as his partner, the puppet appeared in two short pieces as part of CLC's Living Dances and AllOneWord programs. Clearly, Kudelka felt that Malcolm deserved a work of his own.

Malcolm, who gets a credit in the program as a performer, was created by renowned Toronto puppet-maker Nell Coleman, based on Kudelka's concept. The infant-sized puppet is made entirely out of fabric (so as to be easily bendable), with a bald head, articulated fingers and toes, and is garbed in a neat white shirt and grey pants designed by Hoax Couture. Apparently Coleman fashioned Malcolm's facial features after Kudelka.

The puppet is manipulated by one hand of the puppeteer holding the back of its neck, while the puppeteer's other hand moves various parts of Malcolm's body. At the core of the dance piece is Malcolm's relationship with both his puppet master, Kudelka, and talented Toronto composer/pianist Dustin Peters. The latter's original music is evocative – part reflective, part agitated, part whimsical. Peters strike the piano keys and holds down interior strings. Like both Kudelka and Malcolm, he has bare feet.

The set is important. Designer Simon Rossiter has placed a chair on a riser for Kudelka and Malcolm. The riser, in turn, is very close to the baby grand piano so Malcolm can have a closer interaction with the piano and the pianist. Kudelka's demeanour is solemn. The eyes behind his glasses have a melancholy look. Malcolm, cradled in Kudelka's lap, appears to share this aura of sadness. This is the fascinating part – that Malcolm's seemingly blank stare takes on various moods as the piece progresses.

Malcolm first holds his hand to his heart, then to Kudelka's heart. This is his first awareness of sound. When Peters begins to play the piano, Malcolm becomes intrigued by an aural world beyond Kudelka's lap.

What follows is Malcolm's journey propelled by the music. At one point the puppet does a graceful little dance, after which he bows and blows kisses to the audience. He also has a temper tantrum and ends up in a knock-down fight with Kudelka.

His main quarry, however, is Peters. Malcolm is continually drawn to the piano. At the beginning, he tries to get as close as he can in innocent curiosity. By the end, the puppet is over, under and on top of Peters, jumping on the pianist's hands and even crashing his body on the keys. Throughout, Peters is a monolith, playing on regardless.

The subtext is poignant because Kudelka is a sea of emotions. Where Peters is a cipher, no matter how obnoxious Malcolm is, Kudelka's passionate relationship with the puppet becomes more obvious, although he tries valiantly to keep his feelings in check. The end, in particular, is very touching.

As a choreographic experiment, Malcolm commands interest. However, because Kudelka's creative juices run deep, Malcolm is more than a trifle. The piece is also a tender portrait of the human condition, in turn loving, jealous, amused and bewildered.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this dance review incorrectly described composer/pianist Dustin Peters as based in Vancouver. In fact, he lives in Toronto.