Citadel + Compagnie/Four Old Legs, choreographed by James Kudelka, The Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance, Apr. 11 to 20. Tickets available at citadelcie.com.
The lure of ballerina Evelyn Hart is irresistible, albeit she is 63. A packed house was on hand at the Citadel for Four Old Legs, the new duet that revered choreographer James Kudelka’s created for Hart and Zhenya Cerneacov. Through a series of solos and duets, the piece gives us glimpses into the shared life of a couple who have been together for many years. Four Old Legs has a particularly interesting take on love because, in this case, the infatuation stage has passed and the bloom is off the rose.
Kudelka’s association with Citadel + Compagnie, under artistic director Laurence Lemieux, has been a boon to his creativity. In this tiny performing space carved out of an old Salvation Army building, the former National Ballet of Canada artistic director (1996-2005) has found a muse. He’s been credited as C+C’s resident choreographer since 2008. As for Hart, she is simply one of the greatest international-class ballerinas this country has ever produced. For his part, the much younger Cerneacov immigrated to Canada from his native Moldova in 2006, and has become a mainstay in Toronto’s contemporary dance scene.
Apparently, Kudelka, who is also 63, was originally supposed to dance the male role, but gave it over to Cerneacov in the early stages of rehearsal. An older dancer, such as Kudelka, could have brought equality and gravitas to the relationship, but if the audience can set aside the age disparity between Hart and Cerneacov and just concentrate on Kudelka’s choreography, Four Old Legs does speak to the ravages that time inflicts on togetherness. (As a side note, Kudelka gives Cerneacov physical moves that an older dancer simply could not do.)
The set comprises of a large table and two chairs placed on a white square. Simon Rossiter’s lighting and Jeremy Mimnagh’s projections transform this square into whatever space is needed, be it the chequered tiles of a kitchen, the patterns of a living room rug, or the bright flashes of a nightclub floor. Kudelka has always been a master at portraying complicated characters and tangled relationships in movement. From the onset he tells us who these people are. We first meet the man sitting at the table, and in a slow, controlled, up and down, total body physical sigh, he conveys to us his melancholia. The woman then appears on the table, gracefully preening and swanning. She is winsome, vibrant, and revelling in some secret thoughts of happiness. She appears to be in love with love. In fact, throughout Four Old Legs the man is always playing catch-up. He wants her, needs her, but she is distancing herself. They do come together for some tender, even joyous moments, but the woman is clearly outgrowing the relationship.
In terms of choreography, Four Old Legs is Kudelka at his most obvious, dare I say, most simple. As glorious a performer as Hart is, she is still limited by age. There is, therefore, an open frankness to the movement. Gone is Kudelka’s trademark jam-packed tricky footwork and notoriously treacherous partnering. Rather, the throughline of the duets seems to be anchored in the sweeping and swooping of a Fred and Ginger routine, or the conventions of ballroom dance. The couple holds hands, turn, and swing back and forth. For this piece, Kudelka has moved into gestural language, and his interpolation of the positioning of hands, the careful use of touch, the placement of a judicious pause, all convey volumes of emotional subtext. Sometimes the movement or gesture exactly mirrors the lyrics; at other times they are metaphorical or symbolic. Several scenes have dance patterns that cover the stage; others just have the couple sitting opposite each other at the table, their tentative hand and body impulses conveying need or reluctance.
The sixteen pieces of music that underscore the scenes are from Kudelka’s personal playlist, and they all mean something to him. The Band, Laura Nyro, Talking Heads, Ryan Adams – each song has something to say about the human condition. For example, McCartney and Lennon’s “For No One” is one of the strongest sections. The lyrics talk about a love that should have lasted for years, but has collapsed because “she no longer needs you”. Kudelka has choreographed the piece with Cerneacov standing behind Hart. Both are performing sharp, staccato hand and arm gestures, but although they are similar, they are performed at different times, and so have a different visual impact. The man’s are all about circling her and holding on, while the woman’s pattern speaks of escape. Occasionally, the man darts in front of the woman and rolls away. Later in the piece, it is Hart who rolls away from Cerneacov. Kudelka has always understood repetition, and while there is almost too much in Four Old Legs, particularly in the early, more loving duets, these repeating patterns help emphasize the couple’s emotional rollercoaster.
Hart is such an expressive dancer that a flick of her head is like a long monologue from someone else. She artfully builds her character by degrees. Initially, the woman tries to be a meaningful part of the twosome, but we sense her malaise, particularly when the man becomes too enthusiastic. The playful pushing and pulling between the two are, for her, almost physical chains. Kudelka has given Hart movement and gestures that register indifference, guilt, affection and impatience all at the same time. As for her performance, Hart’s beautiful long arms still mesmerize the watcher, and everything she does with her body is consummate grace. During fast turns in the duets, there were awkward little steps to make up distance, but Hart at 63 still makes dance look beautiful.
Cerneacov has a stocky build but it is all muscle. He is incredibly light on his feet, and is fluid and supple in the way he deploys his body. He can also turn like a top. Kudelka has given Cerneacov a couple of fetching solos, including a sexy Latin dance in a nightclub, and later in the work, to Serge Gainsbourg’s “Requiem pour un con”, he executes tight choreography that requires every part of his body to be in motion. The man has been rejected, and with movement that is so welded to the steady beat of the song, he tries to find himself, to get in touch with his body and his mind. Surprisingly, it is also Cerneacov who gets to stamp out the rhythm of “I Will Survive”, which I always thought was a chicktune, although he does get cut off at the knees. Admittedly, the dancer does need more facial expression, but Cerneacov does exude warmth and charm.
While an eminently watchable and attractive piece of dance, some of the choreography in Four Old Legs is rather pedestrian, which is a bit of a disappointment. On the other hand, Kudelka is still a dancesmith non-pareil, and images of the work do stay with you.
I can still see the powerful finale. As Peggy Lee sings “Is That All There Is?”, Cerneacov is carrying Hart on one shoulder. She, uncaring that she is a burden, is slowly swinging her lovely arms and legs at bliss with her world.