The Star – Choreographer James Kudelka debuts as stage director

Talk Is Free Theatre » The Star – Choreographer James Kudelka debuts as stage director

Choreographer James Kudelka debuts as stage director | Toronto Star
By: Dance, Published on Thu Jan 29 2015

Choreographer James Kudelka debuts as stage director

Former National Ballet of Canada artistic director takes on difficult drama The Prince of Homburg at Barrie’s Talk Is Free Theatre.

James Kudelka is fulfilling a long-held ambition. Internationally acclaimed as a choreographer, the former National Ballet of Canada artistic director is making his debut as a stage director at Barrie’s Talk Is Free Theatre. And he’s not making it easy for himself.

Kudelka, who turns 60 in September, is tackling The Prince of Homburg, a fine but notoriously complex and rarely produced play by the Romantic era German writer Heinrich von Kleist.

“It’s been incredibly challenging, intense and exhausting,” says Kudelka, “but also very rewarding.”

Moscow-born artistic producer Arkady Spivak, who founded TIFT in 2003, had no idea Kudelka was itching to direct a play. Three years ago, a friend had taken Spivak to the National Ballet’s Kudelka-choreographed version of The Nutcracker.

“Frankly, it’s not what I’d have chosen to see,” recounts Spivak. “I’d had my fill of Nutcrackers in Russia. But I was invited so I went and was absolutely mesmerized. I thought to myself, ‘This man not only choreographs brilliantly, he’s an extraordinarily inventive stage director.’ So later, I contacted James and asked if he’d be interested in directing a play for us. His response was the quickest ‘yes’ I’ve ever had.”

Spivak left the choice of play entirely to Kudelka. So why, first time out, would Kudelka give himself such a tough assignment? Kleist’s quasi-historical drama provides the backdrop for a sometimes ambiguous and enigmatic dialectic that pits idealism against pragmatism, the individual against society, rebellion against authority, dream against reality.

As Kudelka relates, he grew up in a theatre-loving environment and was attending performances, particularly at the Stratford Festival, from early childhood.

“I can remember family talks about plays around the dinner table,” recalls Kudelka.

His older sister, Jan Kudelka, became an actor and singer while James, from age 10, pursued dance. He was making a name for himself as a choreographer by his early 20s, but he was also seeing, buying and reading plays.

It’s not uncommon for choreographers to draw inspiration from literature, but few are as brainy or bold about it as Kudelka. He adapted German playwright Frank Wedekind’s dark and controversial Spring Awakening in 1994 and, in 2005, An Italian Straw Hat, based on Frenchman Eugène Labiche’s oversexed 19th-century farce.

While mulling options for TIFT, Kudelka came across a modern English translation of Kleist’s The Prince of Homburg in a Vancouver second-hand bookstore.

Kleist was born in Frankfurt in 1777. He was a teenage soldier in the Prussian army. As a staunch German patriot, he endured the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars. He travelled widely, worked for periods in government service and was briefly imprisoned by the French as an alleged spy.

Kleist was also a profoundly restless spirit with a brilliant mind and great gifts as a writer of poems, plays, novels and short stories. A prestigious literary prize was named in Kleist’s honour in 1912, marking the 100th anniversary of his suicide. The Prince of Homburg, among Kleist’s last works, was found among his papers and because of its politically charged and some thought immoral content was not staged until 1821.

Says Kudelka: “I’d not heard of it before, but when I read it, it kicked a lot of boxes for me: love, death and sex. Then, there’s this idea that you can succeed and fail simultaneously. There’s a personal story in that for me. I like to think von Kleist and me, we’re almost buddies.”

Kudelka is frank about the difficulties the play presents.

“It was puzzling. I kept thinking, ‘What the hell happens?’ But the play kept revealing itself in really interesting ways.”

He says he allowed the play to continue revealing itself during the 3-1/2 weeks he spent with the 10-member cast. “I did not come into the studio with a complete vision of the work.”

“This is the most challenging role I’ve ever played,” says Wade Bogert-O’Brien, a 28-year-old Shaw Festival regular cast as the title character. “James came with a great perspective on the piece, but we all had to figure it out together.”

Bogert-O’Brien says it took time for Kudelka and the cast to fully understand each other.

“As actors we have a different working vocabulary and particular way of analyzing and approaching a scene.”

“I had to learn their language. They talk about blocking. In ballet we call it spacing,” says Kudelka, with a chuckle. “You could say I’ve been leading from behind. It’s a truly amazing cast.

“I’ve learned so much from this whole process. My appetite has been whetted.”

The Prince of Homburg is at the Mady Centre for the Performing Arts, 1 Dunlop St. W., Barrie until Feb. 7; or 705-792-1949.

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