Newmarket, Ontario, native James Kudelka studied dance at Canada's National Ballet School in Toronto and danced with The National Ballet of Canada from 1972 until 1981, after which he joined Les Grand Ballet Canadiens. He began choreographing while still at the National Ballet, and was resident choreographer at Les Grand Ballet Canadiens from 1984 until 1990. In 1992 he assumed the position of artist in residence with The National Ballet and in 1996 was named artistic director; he became resident choreographer in 2005. He has created works for numerous other companies, including The Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. While in San Francisco creating his ballet for the New Works Festival, he talked about his attraction to choreography versus performing and the differences between doing full-length ballets and shorter works.
BACKSTAGE: I've read that you have a very broad range of styles, from classical to contemporary. Do you feel a stronger pull from one or the other and how would you describe your own style?
KUDELKA: I try to do what I think is right for the idea of the dance that I'm approaching. I think in the end it's been a blessing for me because it's so interesting to work in many, many different venues and many different styles. But it's a curse because people tend to want you to be a little more linear in what you're doing and to be able to know what to expect when they see a work of yours.
BACKSTAGE: You've done a number of full-length ballets as well as shorter works. Do you feel any different sense of accomplishment after one versus the other?
KUDELKA: My venture into full-length ballets came at the time that I was just about to take on the directorship of the National Ballet of Canada. I had been asked to do a Nutcracker, and that happened to be my first full-length ballet. And on completing that, about a month later, I was named the artistic director of the company. I felt that as artistic director of the company and as resident choreographer that it was my job to do works which would involve the whole company, and certainly Nutcracker's a great one to start with. So therefore I had no qualms about seeing myself as a resident choreographer because I touched the whole organization. So the best way for me to use all of the elements that make a big company was to do full-length works. So I don't now feel, now that I'm not a director, any compulsion to do full-length ballets. I learned a hell of a lot doing them and I did in many ways enjoy that challenge. But my period, I think, of—to use a visual art metaphor—of doing very large-scale oil paintings is over. And frankly, it's probably good because I think as a freelance person you don't get the chance to do that kind of work very often. So I got that out of my system. If anything, if I was going to go to full-length projects, I'd like them to be much less narrative.
BACKSTAGE: What does your process for developing a work in the studio entail? With commissioning the work for your New Works Festival piece, how much did a concept for the piece direct your ideas about the music or vice versa?
KUDELKA: Helgi was very open in the invitation about the possibility of a new score, the possibility of looking outside the usual suspects in terms of costume design for it, so I just let all that mull around in my head for a while. I ran across these pieces of music by César Franck, which are essentially either organ or piano pieces, and I had known a Canadian composer who does actually very, very difficult and intellectual music, who had also done some really wonderful arrangements of less difficult music, particularly one that he called “Scarlatiano,” which was based on music by Domenico Scarlatti, and I liked the new sound that he managed to get out of an old piece of music. Scarlatti was the one used for “Taming of the Shrew,” and Rodney's take on Scarlatti was to me much more interesting, much more broad, much more orchestral. So when I found the pieces of music by César Franck, I thought maybe this would be a good project for Rodney. I wanted to work in an extended way, where when you're working on full-length ballets you're tending to constantly take small pieces and put them together to chain a story together. And I didn't want to have to deal with that. I wanted to go in depth into a singular idea rather than constantly having to keep people entertained. And that it go sort of emotionally or psychologically very, very, very down and then at the end of it something would come back up again. When you're making a new ballet and you have a composer working with you, you end up just saying enough to make it possible for them to work. But I didn't have to do any work until their work was done. So that was true also I guess with the design aspect too, is that I had to try to get the idea of what we were doing in order for the design to be able to move forward. It has ended up being a dance for a core of 10 women, and there were two solos. Women in those two solos have partners, and a new character comes into it at the end and dances with a third man. All in all, this was made on the dancers, as I say, were in front of me. You have to have enough in the room to be able to start what you're doing but it doesn't necessarily know what you're going to do with them once you're there, and you have to give them something to do, so you give them something to do and everything starts feeding on itself and then the creativity takes over. I was worried when I was coming here because I knew what I was going to ask them to do was not a wham-bang virtuoso thing. It's a kind of virtuosity which is very, very quiet, and dancers I think can appreciate it but audiences may not be able to go as deeply into it and realize how difficult it is to get fragile effects from a large group of people. And frankly, I was really amazed that the dancers at San Francisco Ballet took to it so well and took to the direction that it was going. And that made my job much easier.
BACKSTAGE: Who or what has inspired or influenced you the most as a choreographer?
KUDELKA: My influence has changed over the years. I, as a student, a 10-year-old, thought that John Cranko was a wonderful choreographer. I was a page in Romeo and Juliet, and I loved the drama of that. I in later years was very taken with Lar Lubovich. It had a big affect on me to see that there needs to be some center outside the individuals who are in something so that you're not always aware of why something is happening but it's able to happen amongst people. I think he said when he saw newspapers swirling in the wind and he realized they were all being driven by the same wind but they were all reacting to it in different ways, so there was something common about it, common in the vision. To me that was an ideal way to look at what a corps de ballet is, you want them to be as free as leaves or paper in the wind but still being driven by the same force. And I think you could say that about these 10 women in this ballet, that they have some kind of common knowledge about them but they are absolutely individuals. It was one of the reasons why as a director I was always very big on the idea of the ensemble because I always thought if the company as an ensemble was working together well, then it just held, it put the organization on a much higher level and therefore the principals went up even higher.
BACKSTAGE: I've read that you started choreographing while you were still a student at the National Ballet School, and you were a prolific choreographer during your subsequent professional dance career. What drew you toward choreography as opposed to performance?
KUDELKA: I wasn't a bad dancer but I don't think I ever really was a dancer. However, the idea of creating dance was attractive to me very early on. I think one of my difficulties being a director was assuming a leadership role because I tended to be much more the conscience behind the organization in the choreographic sense. So I'm glad to have gotten out of the directorship seat and to go back into the conscience place. I think choreography, in taking it completely outside of the dance world, allowed me a way to interact with people that was really satisfying to me.
BACKSTAGE: Is there anything in particular you would like audiences to know about your work or the thinking behind your work for the New Works Festival?
KUDELKA: I don't think there's anything in particular I'd like them to know. I think discovery is a really, really difficult thing to have now because you can't go to a movie without having seen the movie and the trailer. I think the spirit of coming into a theater, knowing you have a subscription and you're going to see 10 different ballets that you've never seen before, and you're open to that experience, is probably about the best way you could come and see it and give all of these pieces an opportunity to live really just on the discovery of them. And it's wonderful what Helgi's doing.
BACKSTAGE: When you were invited to create a ballet for the New Works Festival, did you think about any particular aspect of yourself or your choreography that you wanted to present, and what intrigued about participating in the Festival?
KUDELKA: Being asked to do a ballet for San Francisco Ballet, after having been here five times before, is a coming home for me in many ways. And I was part of Helgi's first season, and it's great, it's really great that he wants me to be here for part of his major season, the 75th anniversary. So I'm just happy to be here. I do feel I'm at a place in my career that I'd like to do my work differently than I have done it before, and I'm poking around at what that might be. Having asked what influences were, there was a wonderful choreographer in Canada named Jean-Pierre Perreault, who died of AIDS. He came from Quebec. He was a real icon in that providence. He started choreographing when he was young, and at a certain point in his choreographic career had a sort of second blooming, where he discovered a whole new way of seeing his work and the world. It's one thing to go from being a dancer to being a choreographer, but it's another thing to be a choreographer and then to become a somewhat different choreographer than you were. And I think I'm very conscious now of trying to see how I work choreographically and see if I can push myself into a new era of my own work, where a lot of the things that one found important can go away and a lot of new things can come in to replace them. I think my proudest moment as a director was to see that I had actually gone to the National Ballet to try and put something onstage in a completely different way than they were used to doing. And that gave me a lot of courage about doing things in different ways, trying to find new ways of doing things. So how I went about making this dance for San Francisco Ballet, I think I used techniques differently than I had done before because I was trying to be open to new techniques and tried to get dancers to see themselves in different ways and be minimal. So it's not as full of stuff as my dances tended to have been because, you know, I used to be so delighted to come to San Francisco and see the most beautiful bodies, one after the other, able to do incredible things. Let's look at you in a really different light, in a much more sort of poignant light than that.