James Kudelka helped put Canadian ballet on the map

After doing things like working with puppets and creating a ballet based on a Henry James novel, if James Kudelka doesn't deserve a Governor General's Award, no one does.

The boundary-pushing choreographer is one of this year's Governor General's Performing Arts Award laureates

Headshot of Canadian choreographer James Kudelka
Choreographer James Kudelka is a recipient of a 2023 Governor General's Performing Arts Award. (Alejandro Santiago)

In a recent interview with Elamin Abedelmahmoud on CBC's Commotion, renowned Canadian ballet choreographer James Kudelka said that he was "pretty surprised" when he got the news he'd be receiving a Governor General's Award for Performing Arts. He might have been alone in that. But then again, in a 1996 interview with TVO, he kind of makes his whole career sound like one big accident.

"I didn't audition to go to the National Ballet School, basically because I was a 10-year-old male," he told TVO Today host Richard Ouzounian. "They would have taken anybody in pants at that time. And when I got into the company, it happened that it was just this greased career… I joined in '72, when Nureyev was taking the company to the States, when we had gone into that kind of international showcase. The trajectory up through demi-soloist and soloist, it was all just expected and I had, in a way, no control over it."

But his own modesty aside, Kudelka is one of the most celebrated dance minds Canada has ever produced. He started choreographing when he was still a student, and almost from day one, he established himself as someone singularly unafraid of a challenge.

In a 1998 profile in the New York Times, Valerie Wilder — then the National Ballet's executive director — said that ''James is an artist through and through; he sees everything in terms of art."

In 1980, he moved from the National Ballet of Canada to Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in search of an environment that was more encouraging of creative risk. He's radically re-imagined ballet classics like Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. His original ballets have drawn inspiration from sources like a Henry James novella (Washington Square) and the late 19th-century German play Spring Awakening. His 2014 ballet, Malcolm, very heavily featured puppets.

In the Times profile, Kevin McKenzie, then director of New York's Ballet Theatre, said, "I commission James because he is a superb choreographer, but also because I like his dark side.''

Kudelka is weird. Gloriously weird. Unafraid to push boundaries or make audiences uncomfortable.

He's also ours. As Ouzounian said in the TVO interview, the traditional narrative for Canadian creatives is that they "make it" in the U.S. or Europe, then never come back. Kudelka came back.

In the Times article, writer Valerie Gladstone said that, traditionally, the National Ballet had obtained credibility by importing talent from elsewhere, like Rudolf Nureyev or English choreographer Frederick Ashton. Kudelka was part of a generation that made Canadian ballet credible on its own terms.

Kudelka helped make Canadian ballet what it is today, so it shouldn't be surprising to anyone when he gets recognized for it — least of all him.


Chris Dart

Web Writer

Chris Dart is a writer, editor, jiu-jitsu enthusiast, transit nerd, comic book lover, and some other stuff from Scarborough, Ont. In addition to CBC, he's had bylines in The Globe and Mail, Vice, The AV Club, the National Post, Atlas Obscura, Toronto Life, Canadian Grocer, and more.

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