The title of James Kudelka’s new work for Ballet British Columbia varies. On the program cover and in publicity it’s “The Goldberg Variations – Side 2: Adam and Eve and Steve”. Inside the program, it was printed the way Kudelka told me he wanted it when we spoke one afternoon after a rehearsal: “Adam and Eve and Steve (The Goldberg Variations, Side 2).” Apparently Ballet BC, desperate to attract an audience, was keen on the name recognition of the Goldberg.
The company’s need to attach itself to the safety of the well known carried over to the way the choreographer was presented: the program cover announced a world premiere by “James Kudelka, former Artistic Director of The National Ballet of Canada.” You know, the guy who choreographed the brilliant “Four Seasons” and “Fifteen Heterosexual Duets”, the dark, male-dominated “Swan Lake”, the touching “Soudain, l’hiver dernier”, and “The Actress”, tailor-made for the mature and versatile Karen Kain – just to name a few.
These are tough times for Ballet BC, who only recently returned from the brink of bankruptcy, and if name-dropping the Goldberg and The National Ballet would impress their reluctant audiences, who could blame them?
The situation was disheartening behind the scenes, too. Kudelka only knew his commission would go ahead the day before he was due to travel to BC from Ontario, which is when the company dancers knew as well. Ballet BC has, for a mix of reasons, lost three men since their last show in November – Donald Sales, James Gnam and Brad Brannen, and before that Chengxin Wei and Edmond Kilpatrick. These changes and uncertainties provide important context to the creation and performance of “Adam and Eve and Steve”.
The title makes reference to the homophobic quip that “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”, and key to the piece is a mixed gender trio set against four heterosexual couples. Kudelka created separate dances for the two groups and – here’s where the fun comes in – runs them simultaneously on stage.
The young men and women who form the couples – Marianne Bauer-Grobbelaar, Alexis Fletcher, Maggie Forgeron, Shannon Ferguson, Léon Feizo-Gas, Connor Gnam, Peter Smida and Daniel da Silva – are all traditional Adam-and-Eve pairings, filling the stage with lyrical ballet steps and formal patterns. They step and point, arms in tidy port de bras, simply costumed by Nancy Bryant in very brief translucent black tops and shorts. We see lots of skin, though not much oomph, even during the men-only section of leaps. Given the company’s recent seven weeks of unemployment and still uncertain resurrection (how long will it last?), the dancers’ tepid performances are not surprising. Unfortunately, at times it watered down the choreography into a kind of soft wash. When the men rush onto the large stage, instead of celebrating the power of the male dancer that is so much a part of Kudelka’s past work, things go into a kind of hiatus: nothing much happens.
The modern, expressionistic ménage à trois includes the two company veterans: Jones Henry (one of the few to make a ten-year anniversary) and Simone Orlando (a real stalwart in her twelfth season). Joining them is Shannon Smith (in his second season, and recently the lead in “Peter Pan”). Henry is on first – white-faced, with red cheeks and bow tie – juddering across the stage in fast tippy-toe steps, his legs and arms straight and inflexible, a puppet in the tradition of Pierrot or Petrouchka. He moves between the couples as if they didn’t exist, traversing the stage with straight patterns that often take him precariously close to their more complex and circuitous routes.
Smith, also in whiteface, enters with his character’s signature strut, pelvis out, hand on his hip, a taut sexual being. Henry’s character is smitten and their stiff, puppet-like duet mimics the spinning couples, only the one by Henry and Smith has hard windmill arms that make their embraces harder to pull off.
Orlando, another white-faced puppet, enters in a glittery black party dress and heels with bright little steps and perky posture. Smith is intrigued and so the trio negotiate some of the variations on the relationship possibilities of two men and one woman in their halting step-pose way of moving. Smith and Orlando have their own straight-limbed duet, joined by Henry, who insinuates himself between the two. Meanwhile, the couples carry on oblivious, engaged in their pretty flow.
And that is “Adam and Eve and Steve”, set to a string version of the second half of Bach’s monumental Goldberg Variations, originally for harpsichord (side two if it were on vinyl), with a muddy lighting design by Gerald King (surely something went amiss here?).
The work is a great experiment for the now independent choreographer to have undertaken, both in the unusual staging and in terms of content, which features a collision of realities – the group versus the individual and male-female couples versus the possibilities suggested by the ménage à trois. I would say it’s the trio that interests Kudelka – the couples are the background – though he gives the ending of “Adam and Eve and Steve” only to Henry (Steve?). He is left on stage to take a bow as the curtain lowers, looking sad and lonely.
The evening concluded with a remount of Jean Grand-Maître’s “Carmen”, with Bauer-Grobbelaar a feisty, red-haired lead. This is Ballet BC’s third remount of the fast-paced rendition of the torrid gypsy story; the first was in 2003, the same year it had its world premiere at Alberta Ballet, and the second as recently as 2007. Doubtless this was a contributing factor to the dismally empty Queen Elizabeth Theatre, whose almost 3000 seats are proving so hard for Ballet BC to fill.