A complicated contract: young rebels of literature and dance.
IN November 2004, Miriam Toews' novel, A Complicated Kindness, won the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction in English. Its heroine, Nomi Nickel, longs to escape her rigid Mennonite community on the prairies and run away to New York City. Will, the hero of James Kudelka's narrative ballet The Contract (The Pied Piper), leaves his community at the end of the ballet for points unknown. In early April 2005, he'll make it to New York City, with four performances of The Contract at the Brooklyn Academy of Music by the National Ballet of Canada. Sheer coincidence, of course, except insofar as New York has long been Shangri-La for Canadians of many stripes, the place where we dream of finding personal fulfilment and winning the ultimate stamp of approval on our artistic endeavours.
But these two high-profile works are connected by more than this coincidental craving for the Big Apple. In a single year, and in two completely disparate art forms, they focus our attention on the rebel in society, a well-worn theme, but one which these works locate in unusual territory. The rebellions they portray are not against the contemporary norms of secular Canadian society, but against the discipline and self-imposed strictures of closed religious communities. In thus situating rebellion in the context of communal faith, not in the glib commonalities of a shared global youth culture, they initiate a much-needed dialogue on the values and limitations of community itself. Their depictions complicate our assessment of the rebel's act. Taken together, these two works teach us that rebellion, rightly under-stood, comes at a cost. The repudiation of tyranny entails unexpected sacrifice; in order to free ourselves from what we hate, we must also turn our backs on what we have loved.
SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD Nomi Nickel has lots to rebel against, heaven knows. She lives in East Village (a thinly veiled parody of Steinbach, Manitoba), a town ostensibly controlled by the puritanical strictures of the Mennonite faith. (What goes on among its youth, behind the backs of the religious authorities, is another story, the story of this novel.) Time and again, Nomi's mordant wit skewers the gloomy asceticism, the stiff-necked certitude, of her community. "A Mennonite telephone survey," she says, "might consist of questions like, would you prefer to live or die a cruel death, and if you answer 'live' the Menno doing the survey hangs up on you." For Nomi, Mennonite values are summed up in its prohibitions, and characterized by its privations. Mennonites, she goes on, are like "a breakaway clique of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media, dancing, smoking, temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock 'n' roll, having sex for fun, swimming, make-up, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities, or staying up past nine o'clock."
These puritanical values are embodied in Nomi's uncle Hans (variously nicknamed Hands, the Mouth of Darkness, or just the Mouth), the head of the church in East Village. Through his bombastic sermons, and his manipulation of communal spiritual disciplines such as shunning and excommunication, the Mouth extends his dubious spiritual authority into as many aspects of civic life as possible. East Village becomes his personal City of God, and during the course of the novel every member of Nomi's family runs afoul of his strict sense of moral rectitude and insatiable appetite for discipline. Rebelling against this authority and code of values is, as Nomi herself might put it, a no-brainer. The real question here is why it takes her an entire novel to get out, but the answer to that question lies in complicated and melodramatic plot twists that are hardly unique to the Mennonite faith or way of life.
My difficulty with Toews' portrait of this strict religious community, amusing as it is, is that it reduces the complexities of faith to the simplicities of its prohibitions. Perhaps that's part of her point, but if so, it's not strongly enough articulated to emerge as a genuine critique of the state of Mennonite religious belief in contemporary Canada. Too often, Toews skims the surface, like the American tourists who come to East Village "to observe our simple ways." She contents herself with superficial satire instead of sustained social commentary.
"What's wrong with satire?" one may ask. Nothing, of course, except that the book's wonderful title promises so much more. As someone who grew up in the same Mennonite faith as Nomi, though not in a small town entirely controlled by Mennonite values like East Village, I was led to hope for a portrayal of Canadian Mennonite life that acknowledged the strength, not just the repressiveness, of its community. I sought a story that recognized the complicated kindness within the difficult strictures of the faith, and was disappointed to find one that simply opposed the kindness of individuals to the complications of the faith.
Nomi glimpses the kindness only occasionally, often in disguise, conveniently separated from the strict values against which she must rebel. "But there is kindness here, a complicated kindness. You can see it sometimes in the eyes of people when they look at you and don't know what to say. When they ask me how my dad is, for instance, and mean how am I managing without my mother."
In my experience, however, the kindness was inextricably knotted and tangled in the fundamentalist, puritan values that seemed to stifle it. To seek freedom from the restrictions of that way of life required a rejection of its very real charity as well. Rebelling was scary. Rebelling meant going it alone, when the comforts of community had been the strength and support of my formative years. There are tantalizing hints that Nomi's father recognizes similar complexities, but he has withdrawn before the story even begins, and we never get the benefit of his knowledge.
Nomi, troubled and desperate though she is, does not give us a true assessment of the cost of rebellion. Every tiny act is rebellious in her lexicon. Her sister's illicit library card in the city. An anonymous child's stubborn insistence on riding a doll stroller too small for her. "I wonder if she felt the way I did about people who told you something that you knew was just not fuckin' true and if she felt like screaming at them and hurting them and plunging herself into a chemically induced oblivion."
Probably not. So many acts of rebellion in the book, indiscriminately observed, finally devalue the currency. And that may be one reason why, at the novel's conclusion, Nomi doesn't really leave, or not yet, at any rate. "Truthfully, this story ends with me still sitting on the floor of my room wondering who I'll become if I leave this town ..." But then, as Nomi herself warned us at the outset, "I've got a problem with endings."
JAMES KUDELKA has no such problem. Will, at the end of The Contract, stands at the footlights, just behind a scrim, but framed in a small open doorway, through which he surveys the auditorium of the theatre. It's literally his only way out, since the wings of the stage, the normal points of entrance and exit in virtually all dance productions, are blocked in this ballet by solid side walls that make of the dancing area a true box set--contained, secure, and claustrophobic.
This tableau provides a compelling theatrical image for the ballet's narrative conclusion. Will stands in a glaring spot-light. Behind him, in the dimmed lighting of the stage, stand the adult members of his community, whose hypocrisy is forcing him out. In front of him, in the darkened auditorium, lies the real world, separated by a gulf much wider than the mere orchestra pit from the world created by the dance. The true cost of Will's rebellion could not be more graphically portrayed. Behind him, the security and familiarity of a world that created him, which he knows he can no longer tolerate; before him, a world he cannot know and must venture into without resources, except for those he can find inside himself. The moment, unresolved, is over in a flash, but it cuts to the quick.
That scrim becomes the all-important boundary line separating the familiar past from the unknowable future. It defines the rebel's point of decision, like the proverbial line in the sand. Once Will crosses it, there can be no going back. His rebellion is made meaningful by the magnitude of the sacrifice it entails, by the strength of the values it rejects. The stage imagery here is remorselessly inclusive. All the good things of Will's past stand there behind him, along with the narrow-minded hypocrisies he despises. All will be left behind, the moment he takes his next step.
This being dance, Kudelka makes his points non-verbally, and without authorial comment. The community he presents has no historical reference. It's a convenience of the scenario, vaguely Shaker in its aesthetic, but otherwise unidentifiable. In a complicated plot that combines the story of the pied piper of Hamelin with the ecstatic faith-healing of a charismatic, but flawed, evangelist, the community's hypocrisy is revealed by its failure to honour a debt to the healer. The community finds convenient justification for thus breaking its contract in its self-righteous outrage at the secret sexual encounter that has occurred between young Will and the faith-healer (very loosely modelled on Aimee Semple McPherson).
The part of the hypocritical villain is assumed by the dramatic solo role of the Elder. He's first cousin to all the evil geniuses of classical ballet, especially Rothbart in Swan Lake. (What Nomi says of the inbred community of East Village is equally true of the range of character types available to narrative dance: "There's no deep end in this town's gene pool.") But he also bears an uncanny resemblance to Nomi's uncle, the Mouth--rigid, dictatorial, the sworn enemy to youth, sensuality, spontaneity, and self-fulfilment. Like the Mouth, he's easy to hate.
What's not so easy to hate is the community itself. Far from being mere backdrop to the melodrama playing itself out, the members of Will's community are central characters in the ballet. Kudelka populates the stage with all the generations of his dancers, from the small children of the National Ballet School through all the ranks of the company, including its most senior character artists. The community is the company, from its youngest hopefuls to its best-loved veterans. There is a powerful chemistry that binds the familiar members of a repertory dance company to its longstanding audience. We see the characters being impersonated, but recognize at the same time the artists we have been watching season after season, in some cases for forty years or more. This chemistry works powerfully in The Contract. During the children's presentation of "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" at the beginning of the ballet, we see them hectored and shepherded by the benignly cranky Lorna Geddes and Victoria Bertram, well-known veterans of the company; it is impossible not to respond with affectionate recognition. How nice to see them again, and to see them looking so well! It is Kudelka's particular genius (he's been at it at least since Pastorale and The Four Seasons) to honour his senior artists by exploiting this rapport, which they have built up with their audience over the years. The group that now includes Bertram, Geddes, Hazaros Surmeyan, and Tomas Schramek can't be all bad. After all, they're the backbone of the dance tradition we value; they carry in their bones the continuity of the company itself.
To underscore this positive value of community, Kudelka builds much of the choreography for this ballet on ensembles for the entire group. He uses intricate ensemble effects--wheels within wheels, intertwined chains of dancers, lines of dancers bowing to and acknowledging one another, the convivial patternings of social dance--to bring to life the close-knit strength of this closed community." If there is restriction and repression, there is also structure, nurture, and care.
BY THUS placing an entire community at the choreographic centre of his work, Kudelka has made community itself an essential part of the ballet's aesthetic effect. This is a ballet that charms and fascinates us by its varied ensembles, much more than by its solos and pas de deux. As choreographer, Kudelka validates the very community that he questions as dramatist. That's why Will's final moment of decision is so powerful. His rebellion is against all that has nurtured him, against all that we have come to appreciate as central to our enjoyment of the evening's dance. The Contract does justice to these complicated issues; A Complicated Kindness, despite its title, merely simplifies them.
JAMES NEUFELD is a professor of English Literature at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.
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|Title Annotation:||Miriam Toewes' novel, 'A Complicated Kindness'; James Kudelka's narrative ballet 'The Contract'|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2005|
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