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A notion of journey is key to the one-hour duet between Evelyn Hart and Zhenya Cerneacov.Jeremy Mimnagh/Handout

  • Four Old Legs
  • Presented by: Citadel and Compagnie
  • Choreographer: James Kudelka
  • Dancers: Evelyn Hart and Zhenya Cerneacov

James Kudelka’s contemporary choreography can be subtle, cerebral and challenging. His latest work, Four Old Legs, which had its world premiere at Toronto’s Citadel Theatre last week, could even be called sly. It has the effect of sneaking up on you, refusing to strong-arm any idea or emotion prematurely. The piece earns its feelings so slowly and imperceptibly that it runs the risk of going nowhere until, quite suddenly, it’s landed on rich and poignant terrain.

This notion of journey is key to the one-hour duet between former prima ballerina Evelyn Hart, now 63, and a much younger dancer, the Canadian-Moldovan Zhenya Cerneacov. Structured as 16 vignettes, each set to its own piece of music (the selection ranges from Judy Garland to the Talking Heads to Chopin), the work follows two not-quite-linear trajectories. There’s the progression of a romantic relationship, from its inchoate beginnings to a place of maturation, coupled with a more comprehensive journey through life itself, from youth to old age. In Kudelka’s rendering, they are eras of equal beauty that perhaps exist inside us simultaneously.

Structured as 16 vignettes, each set to its own piece of music, the work follows two not-quite-linear trajectories.Jeremy Mimnagh/Handout

It’s fascinating to come across a work of art in which your real-time experience of watching ends up feeling discordant with the takeaway. Kudelka isn’t interested in virtuosity or any technically ambitious movement here (while Hart has done some postretirement dancing, her career has been effectively over for almost 15 years). Rather, he places two very different performers on stage and asks us to consider them simply as they are. There’s a table and a couple of chairs for them to interact with and, in two contiguous solos, they develop natural physical idioms for moving and being in the space. The content feels so spare and slack in these sequences that its thinness draws attention to itself. Is this paucity deliberate? Where can it go?

Initially, it’s hard not to impute the 30-odd-years age difference between the dancers as germane. Hart’s slenderness and gracile presence is inflected with fragility, while Cerneacov has a brawny solidity – he trained as a ballroom dancer in Moldova before immigrating here. But what’s incredible is the way Kudelka turns the age difference into a red herring. He seems to be actively toying with the discord between form and content, asking us to see more than the exterior of an older woman/younger man relationship and consider his lovers as archetypal and unstuck in time. Through sequences that involve little more than walking together, dancing together, holding each other and exchanging loaded glances, the man and woman become ageless, eternal. They are themselves at all points of life.

There are layers to unfold in James Kudelka’s Four Old Legs.Jeremy Mimnagh/Handout

By the 12th vignette (set to The Lost Sky, a haunting song about broken love by Jesca Hoop), I found myself profoundly moved by the troubled drama that Hart and Cerneacov had built together. Covering large sections of the stage in a duet full of motion and lightness, the dancers paused to act out some of the key words in Hoop’s song: telling secrets, sending lifelines, washing one’s mouth of lies. Kudelka is often interested in the way his dancers relate to the music – there’s a similar literalizing of lyrics in his 2010 work The Man in Black. The effect draws our attention to the conventions of the whole enterprise: does the music accompany the dancing or does it actually control the dancers? Are we meant to read irony in these campy – but very affecting – moments of play-acting?

In literature, there are various schools of theory that deal with the author’s relationship to the work they created. Does the text seem like an unbroken extension of its creator’s thoughts, or is there a point of rupture between what the text appears to “say” and what the author, in fact, “means?” Kudelka seems to achieve this as a choreographer, inserting himself in the space between his steps. Watch carefully; there are layers to unfold.

Four Old Legs continues at The Citadel until April 20.

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