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The Contract, James Kudelka’s first evening-long work for National Ballet of Canada, is a somber extravaganza, involving over 50 performers, some of them children and older dancers; a full orchestra to play Michael Torke’s rich and urgently dramatic score; and a massive set by Michael Levine that resembles a school auditorium. The title refers to the broken agreement between Robert Browning’s Pied Piper and the greedy burghers of Hamelin ( “I got rid of your rats. You won’t pay up? Come on, kids, let’s go”). It also alludes to a contract between an afflicted community of strait-laced folks and the beautiful healer who happens by; she’s ousted after being caught straddling a supine guy who’s taken his pants off, the better to pas-de-deux the hell out of her. The children follow, dancing.
The ballet, made in 2002 after years of gestation, demonstrates Kudelka’s interest in exploring new creative avenues and deep ideas, but not his best choreography. The concept is interesting. Members of a rigidly stratified community are gathered to watch their children very charmingly enact the tale of the Pied Piper on the hall’s little stage, while a disembodied male voice recites Browning’s poem. That the padded little Mayor (Carleigh Beverly) and town council walk through the onstage audience to denounce the piper presages the intermingling of two related stories. Before the show, the adults—costumed in curious cutaway uniforms (by Denis Lavoie) in combinations of black and white—dance in lines and concentric circles, males and females separated. Walking gravely or executing contained but springy steps or (the younger women) strutting on pointe—hands often held out slightly with palms forward—they have the look of a sober-sided religious sect. When a young man (Guillaume Côté) returns from the outside world, where he’s obviously been to ballet school, they tolerate his bold leaps—even imitate him a bit—but hasten to cover his tank top with the required clothes.
Didn’t they notice that little twitch of his head? Apparently not, because shortly after getting reacquainted with his girlfriend (Rebekah Rimsay) and her parents (Aleksandar Antonijevic and Xiao Nan Yu), he infects the young people with something that looks like St. Vitus’s Dance. (What symbol is Kudelka dealing with here? AIDS, sacrilegious knowledge, inner rodents?) Enter Eva the healer (Martine Lamy), tempering her spiritual side (delicate pointework) with her sensual one (a slither of her hips). Kudelka has said that the character was inspired by the glamorous and charismatic Los Angeles evangelist of the ’20s and ’30s, Aimee Semple McPherson, whose thousands of devotees weren’t much deterred by the occasional scandal surrounding her.
After the men of the community agree to hire Eva, they hustle in a useful little ladder, and she sets about her task while the uninjured sit along the sides to watch her soft arabesques and the way she lays hands on the infected after they crawl, one by one, up the ladder and stand beside her for a second before walking down the other side, cured. The community goes back to happy chassés; she collapses in exhaustion.
Now something very peculiar happens. Blankets are handed out, curtains drawn, chairs tilted over, and everyone lies down to sleep—men on one side, women on the other. Do they live in this barn-like space with its caged windows? At the party after the opening, a little boy in the cast confidently gave Elizabeth Zimmer an explanation: “They had a power outage.” Oh. That’s how it comes to be that some kids spot Eva and Will, the returnee, doing all manner of marvelous, ecstatic things, after which she is denounced at length by almost everyone. Will is hurled to the floor; it turns out he’s not just being a wimp in failing to come to Eva’s defense, they’ve hurt his leg and now, like the crippled boy in the tale, he can only limp after the joyful “piper,” and, in the end, be left behind. Why do the children follow Eva? Out of a sense of justice their elders lack? Because they never liked their lives or their parents? Because the story has to end that way? As they go, the adults are scrabbling up the walls like the imprisoned rats that they are.
Kudelka has created a compelling ambience and some highly effective charged moments, but the structure seems flawed, and the dramaturgy raises questions. The choreography defines the community by prayerful gestures and bouncy folk dances, but the floor patterns look oddly jumbled. The healer is a lyric ballerina, and the pas de deux suggests not a new language of love but a developed technique for indicating rapture. The men on occasion form stiff “primitive” tableaux, make denunciatory gestures, or use standard steps dramatically (e.g. the father’s anguished pirouette on observing his jerking, staggering daughter).
The performers are all, needless to say, splendid—admirable in their commitment to this endeavor every second they’re onstage.