National Ballet of Canada

"The Contract"

Hummingbird Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, ON

May 4, 2002
By Malcolm Tay

James Kudelka's latest full-length ballet for The National Ballet of Canada, The Contract, doesn't milk, drag out the narrative for all its worth. In two acts, it tells a compelling, if somewhat eccentric, story solely in terms of movement, with a libretto by Robert Sirman; and yet, its larger implications hint at some deep-seated fear, even revulsion, of humankind's primal passions. That's possibly why the ballet isn't recommended for children under the age of 14.

Like Bronislava Nijinska's Les Noces of 1923, The Contract captures a community at an important moment in its existence. And the people who constitute this particular community aren't the most exciting people around. In plain dresses and suits of white and deep green, they sway from side to side in circles and lines, the torso rarely deviating from its frontal, upright position, their half-extended arms mostly plastered to their sides. They hardly touch. It's all about the collective conscience – not even the Elder, played by Rex Harrington, stands out too much. Not surprisingly, men and women don't dance in intimate pairs; later, it's shown that they sleep separately. I imagine the Shakers were probably like this, staid and efficient, in their routine tasks (although worship is another matter altogether).

The people have gathered for their children’s performance, as given by students of the National Ballet School, in Michael Levine's whitewashed community hall, where the stage wings have been blocked with large, grilled windows. They brilliantly enact an adaptation of Robert Browning’s poem, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, narrated by Tom McCamus. The story is famous enough – the colourfully-caped Piper rids a city of rats in return for a sum of money, but this promise is breached, and he consequently lures the people’s children away, except maybe the crippled boy who couldn’t follow fast enough. We will see, in the ballet, how life can cruelly imitate [amateur] art.

Amid the celebration that ensues, a young man named Will (Guillaume Côté), who has been absent for a while, returns, to the joy of everyone. From his gently undulating torso and big, boisterous leaps, it’s apparent that his experience sets him slightly apart from the others. Côté brings a youthful glee to the role. But a little differentiation turns into chaos when he suddenly manifests a “movement disorder” that is highly contagious. Those infected develop a nervous tic, struggling to keep their writhing bodies erect; previously orderly patterns are unravelled, mashed into heaps. Not even his fiancée, Dot (Rebekah Rimsay), and her mother (Xiao Nan Yu), who tries to intervene, are spared.

At this point, Eva, danced by Martine Lamy, appears. In a modest, flesh-coloured dress, she is obviously an outsider. Unlike the others, her arms and her soft grasp freely reach forward. It is these hands that will cure the community of their affliction, but not before they put aside their suspicions. The male seniors approach her cautiously in clumps, as if threatened by her very presence. They could be thinking, “Can we trust a lone woman who roams on her own with no husband to discipline her?” Eventually, they strike a deal, though her reward is not known. Summoning her powers in an exhortative solo, she heals them one by one on a raised platform, laying her hands on each person’s chest and back. A tiring process. In a character based on evangelist cum faith healer Aimee Semple McPherson, Lamy cuts a subtly charming figure, despite a fall.

Sex soon comes next. That is, sex between Eva and Will after a heated duet. Which is fine by itself, except two children end up watching them get it on – he unbuckles his pants to expose his boxers; she helps him take them off, straddling him – until the Elder catches the couple. Perhaps he was attracted to her very different manners, while she opened up to his friendliness, acceptance. It wasn't an all-out slutty seduction on her part; it was more like a mutual understanding. In any case, society is appalled by their relationship. The people point accusingly at them, at what they see as a horrible transgression.

Recalling the Matriarch in Doris Humphrey’s With My Red Fires (1936), but with less kooky fanaticism, the Elder violently throws Will aside (thereby injuring him), instigating the community to turn against Eva and undo their contract. Only Dot’s mother supports her, but not that anyone would care – women in the community, even the seniors, hold little authority. The people, led by the Elder, form a long procession of bodies canonically turning away in shame; Eva is no match for them, and they cast her out. But the children don’t seem to agree. To them, she is their Piper, cheated of what she has duly earned. In a bizarre twist of fate, Eva dons the Piper’s gaudy cloak and pulls the children along with her, leaving a limping Will behind, like the lame boy in the story.

The National Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Ormsby Wilkins, rendered Michael Torke’s original score, which underpins the action without overwhelming it, incorporating Jennie Such's wordless soprano voice into its themes. For its world premiere, the audience gave the cast of The Contract a raucous standing ovation. Kudelka just might have added yet another masterpiece to his name.


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Edited by Marie.

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