James Kudelka isn’t the most scintillating conversationalist, but his dances are never dull. Cruel World, a flurry of duets made for American Ballet Theatre in 1994, divided viewers, who saw either the paragon of partnering or the musings of a misanthrope.
The self-styled ”love, sex, and death choreographer” returns to City Center Tuesday with the National Ballet of Canada, where he succeeded Reid Anderson as artistic director in 1996. It’s an odd move for a dancemaker in his prime, and an odder one for an introvert. But after years of freelancing, the clever classicist hit a turning point.
”I’m moving into a new period and I’m absolutely fearless about it,” he says, ”because I know the old ways of making ballets and running companies don’t work anymore.” In hindsight, it seems inevitable he’d take the helm. After Cruel World, he tackled trios in States of Grace and corps work in the National’s bold restaging of The Nutcracker. Running the troupe was the logical next step. ”It’s like choreographing a very big ballet.”
For a guy who’s spent half his life in and around NBC, it’s also like going home. Starting at the company’s feeder school at age 10, he joined the corps at 16, made soloist at 20, and quit at 24. He returned as artist-in-residence at 36. Now 42, he and executive director Valerie Wilder shoulder a $1.8 million deficit. As they trim casting and bookings, Kudelka believes the company can dance its way out of debt with the right material. Updated classics, like Nutcracker and next year’s Swan Lake, figure prominently in his plan. So do works outside the classical canon, like the weight of absence by soloist Dominique Dumais, and his own The Four Seasons, which explores the stages of a man’s life.
Kudelka, intent on drawing dancers into the creative process, isn’t alone in entering a new phase. ”When I danced with the company in the ’70s, we learned Ashton ballets from notators,” he says. Today living choreographers like Dumais and John Alleyne offer NBC a fresher harvest.