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Choreographer James Kudelka, artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada since 1996, had an idea for a new ballet after staging the perennial favorite, "The Nutcracker."

"We have a wonderful ballet school, and I thought it was incredible to work with such a large group of motivated dance students," Kudelka said in a telephone interview from his Toronto office. "I thought it was great that we could do the ’Nutcracker,’ but why not do the anti-’Nutcracker’? We could do [a ballet that’s] not about sweetness and light, values and family."

The ballet that resulted, "The Contract," has its U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for five performances at the Howard Gilman Opera House from April 5 to April 9. Loosely based on Robert Browning’s poem "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," this dark, difficult work with a score by composer Michael Torke had a complicated genesis, according to Kudelka.

"I wanted to create a ballet addressing issues of faith, and I’ve always been very taken with [Browning’s poem], and I thought something could connect those two ideas," he explained. That something - or someone - was Canadian evangelist Aimee Sample McPherson.

"In the ’80s, when evangelicals were popular, Aimee was extraordinarily famous," said Kudelka. "She built a temple in L.A., then had a scandal where she disappeared. She said she was kidnapped, but she had really gone to a motel with somebody. So I wanted to combine that story with Browning’s."

Along with librettist Robert Sirman, Kudelka began fleshing out "The Contract," which shows the children of a rigidly moralistic town afflicted by a mysterious disorder. A stranger arrives, using her powers to cure the children, but is quickly shunned after her affair with a local man is revealed.

"This society [in the ballet] is so enclosed that it would be better for the children to leave - they themselves realize there’s a lot of hypocrisy involved," said Kudelka.

"There really are societies that are becoming harsher and thinking they’re above everybody else, and they are turning in on themselves," he said. "In the poem, there were rats, but we have an actual plague that harms the younger generation.

"As a child, I always wondered that - why wasn’t the piper paid? I couldn’t sort that out. But these are things you don’t realize as a child, that people are so arrogant that they don’t pay him simply because he’s ’different.’ Kids know you have to pay the piper, even if adults don’t."

Speaking of children, "The Contract" contains parts for 18 youngsters, in addition to an adult cast of 36 and a full orchestra. (The National Ballet of Canada Orchestra will do the honors, along with members of the Brooklyn Philharmonic.)

"I’ve always loved working with children," said Kudelka, "and the history of ballet has always had, in its large institutions, many young people working in theaters. But it’s not very North American to do that. Also, our company isn’t in a situation where we perform all year in an opera house: it’s difficult with touring, so we do most works with children only in Toronto."

For Kudelka, bringing "The Contract" to BAM was a no-brainer.

"I had work performed in Brooklyn back in the ’80s," he said. "This is the first time the National Ballet of Canada performs [at BAM] under my leadership; they were there in the ’50s with some really interesting programs.

"BAM is a very important venue for me because of the other companies that perform there. I’m very proud of our programming, which allows us to bring different kinds of works here. I’d like those works to be seen in many other places, and if they’re perfectly risky enough for BAM and other interesting festivals like Edinburgh and Paris, then that’s important."

Torke on the score

For his part, composer Michael Torke found it quite motivating to work on a piece with a choreographer, librettist and others from the ballet company.

"Because it took seven years for this project, there was literally five years of meetings to discuss what we wanted to do," Torke explained by telephone from Albany, where he was overseeing a new recording. "After that, I sat down to write.

"I had about 30 ideas, anywhere from eight bars to a few minutes long, and I played them for everyone. I asked if the music meant anything to anyone, and they all said ’No.’ If I had said, ’Listen to this, it’s a love theme,’ they’d say ’OK.’ So I learned to be more pro-active."

Torke learned to compose differently on "The Contract."

"[The others] guided me, giving me the confidence and direction to write more in a certain way," said Torke. "Developing the score was a weird process. It was the first time I worked like that in dance, and I found it stimulating."


The National Ballet of Canada’s production of "The Contract" plays at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene, on April 5, 7 and 8 at 7:30 pm and April 9 at 2 pm and 7:30 pm. Tickets are $20, $40, $60 and $70; a BAM Dialogue with James Kudelka and Michael Torke will be held after the April 7 performance and is free to ticket-holders. For more information call (718) 636-4100 or visit the Web site at

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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