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Flash Review 2, 5-21: Kudelka Lives up to the Bargain
NBC Director's New "Contract" Closes Company's 50th with a Bang not a Toot

By Shena WIlson
Copyright 2002 Shena Wilson

TORONTO -- I've come away from the premiere of James Kudelka's "The Contract," earlier this month on the National Ballet of Canada at the Hummingbird Centre, with things I love: a delicious series of questions and the memory of a performance unlike any other I've seen. This 50th anniversary creation, to a Robert Sirman libretto merging the fictional legend of the Pied Piper with the real-life one of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, is dreamlike in atmosphere; clear in theme, plot and purpose; visually simple and very beautiful.

Thanks to its layers and magnitude as a project, there is a lot to be said about "The Contract." For starters, the project is the result of a decade of gestation. NBC artistic director Kudelka was right to pursue it and fortuitously gather the right artistic team. With such a modern score and forcibly unresolveable story-line, I have to admit though, I apprehended things like: piercing brass; dissonance galore; odd-ball movement; confused or flat plot; and dancers who must soldier on, faced with soulless modernity. No such thing! Of course there's the Kudelka choreography I love: encompassing flow, grace, interesting lines and direction, and not a sticky phoned-in prep in the building. That's not all folks, by a long-shot.

Created on a seamlessly-rehearsed, multigenerational cast of 18 children and 36 adults, the ballet is carried by a gorgeous orchestral score by U.S. composer and previous Kudelka collaborator Michael Torke. The music, which I heard on piano at a recent studio open house, seemed crazily complex and uncountable. However, played by the National Ballet of Canada's orchestra it is sumptuous, melodic, unpredictable, and catchy, reminiscent of Philip Glass and of Michael Nyman's film score for "The Piano." Soprano Jennie Such's soaring voice highlights movement throughout the ballet. Canadian set designer Michael Levine taps into familiarity as we peer in the back door of a cozy capsule of a conservative town hall. Upstage is a raised stage framed by "exit" doors. There are moveable audience-chairs for the adults, and backdrops for the children's play. The secondary effect of this tinkering with the traditional fourth wall of theatre is that of inclusion, for the audience.

Sirman juxtaposed the 1888 poem by Robert Browning, "The ied Piper of Hamelin," and appropriate elements of the life of Ontario-born (1890) evangelist McPherson, or "Sister Aimee" into an engaging and direct plot. A Pied Piper play within the ballet is presented by the children in the town hall accompanied by a melodic voice-over delivered by Tom McCamus. This play is to be echoed soon-after in the events in the 'real' town events with the arrival of faith-healer Eva. Special applause goes to a young dancer of about ten, Carleigh Beverley, who played the Mayor in the Piper's play. What a gem! Eva, the mysterious faith-healer who cures the town's youth of a form of movement sickness brought home by the young Will, was danced by Martine Lamy. This healer-cum-scandal-maker requires an aplomb, sensuality and depth, all of which Lamy achieves with a terrific melange of human fragility and mystical authority. Essentially, "The Contract" is indeed Lamy's ballet, the perfect apotheoses in a now 20-year and counting career with the National Ballet of Canada.

The main complaint I have about this ballet is that just when Lamy is in full-flight of solo expression (during the first act) and I'm being drawn further into the character, the scene is too soon over. The seduction scene, however, between Lamy and Guillaume Cote, is quite beautiful. It is sexy, not over-the-top, suitably juicy and scandalous. The age difference between the two enhances it all. Eva gives unwaveringly until she is exhausted and falls asleep. She is, however, revitalised by sex and soon after ousted from the town because of this passionate activity with young Will, danced by an impulsive, generous and sexy Cote.

Will, the scoundrel, is betrothed to Dot, performed with exact doses of innocence by the enchanting Rebekah Rimsay. Will is injured by the outraged town Elder and cast out as well. The Elder is danced by an remarkably understated, quasi-introverted Rex Harrington. Ever evolving, Harrington didn't allow his usual uber-charisma (or 'Rexiness') to leak into this unique character. He achieves marvelous subtlety. In the end, the town's children are appalled by the hypocrisy of all their elders, following follow Eva out of town to a better place.

Incredibly, Eva's only defender is Dot's mother, danced at the opening night by the elegant Xiao Nan Yu. The role of the father, however, danced with typical easy clarity by Aleksandar Antonijevic, doesn't follow suit, although he begs for the healer to help his wife, the only adult stricken by the sickness. Perhaps the mother believed not only in basic integrity, but that the pre-nuptial scandal saved her daughter from future pain with the roving Will. If he sees the marriage contract as breakable, perhaps she reasons, better now than later.

"The Conract" entailed a swirl of moment and circles of community dance that drew me in completely from start to finish. The cast, ranging in age from roughly ten to sixty, was treated homogeneously. All were truly integral, fully used, not babied or pardoned as may be expected. Kudelka is not shy either about using repetition -- which can put entertainment in peril -- in order to show the contrast between the hum-drum town before and chaos after Eva's arrival.

When infected by the uncontrollable twitching of the movement sickness, the physicality of those stricken is quite impressive, involving falling, flinging, and flicking. Traditional ballet acting, appropriate for classics, is replaced here with a more naturalistic style. This leaves an unusual residual impression. It is as though the performance were not danced, but transferred or expressed as physical theater.

Denis Lavoie's costumes for the townspeople are elegant, pure Puritan, Quaker meets couture: dark grey flannel dresses, trousers, kilts, bolero jackets, unusually cut vests, crisp white shirts, short dark socks and pointe shoes. The children often wear large blouses over their clothing, adorned with their hand-drawn names in primary colours. Eva, by contrast, wears filmy beige as does her lover Will, post-seduction. She is also bare-legged and basically looks naked and exposed, albeit willingly.

Why didn't the rat-infested town of Hamelin just pay its liberating piper? And what is the nature of a promise? When can we break a contract and not pay the piper? Does leading away the children redress the wrong? Evangelist Sister Aimee did good for many and was eventually brought down flat by a sexual scandal when she was about 46. (Her Church of Foursquare Gospel still claims a membership of over three million. She died of an accidental sleeping pill overdose in 1944.)

"The Contract" is that rare work of art that prods us into thought. It is the type of creation that will undoubtedly allow us to perceive it differently depending on how much we are able to absorb at the moment.

National Ballet of Canada next performs artistic director James Kudelka's "The Contract" Thursday through Saturday at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

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