Making Contract

the contract choreographed by James Kudelka, libretto by Robert Sirman, score by Michael Torke, set design by Michael Levine, presented.

the contract choreographed by James Kudelka, libretto by Robert Sirman, score by Michael Torke, set design by Michael Levine, presented by the National Ballet of Canada at the Hummingbird Centre (1 Front East). Runs May 4-18 at various times. $26-$110, May 14 all seats $20-$40. 416-345-9595. Rating: NNNNN

most people’s daytimers span one, at most two, calendar years. Designer Michael Levine’s goes up to the fall of 2005.”This week,” he sighs, “I’m working on four and a half projects. They’ve all sort of collided in this horrible car-crashy mess.”

I survey his neat and airy Spadina studio, dotted with little models of sets, one featuring a lone figure — a singer? a clown? — surrounded by a sea of red and black. Not much of a mess here.

Levine, boyish-looking, is calmly munching an apple. Not much of a mess there either.

One of the most in-demand set designers in the world, Levine works mostly in opera and theatre. This week marks one of his rare forays into classical dance, as the curtain rises (metaphorically anyway — there may be no curtain) on James Kudelka’s ballet The Contract.

For this ballet, inspired by the Pied Piper legend and the story of Canadian-born evangelist and healer Aimee Semple MacPherson, Levine has dispensed with traditional wings — the open spaces at the sides of the stage — to create an intentionally claustrophobic three-wall set that evokes a timeless American community hall.

As part of his research, he scoured and took snapshots of all the community meeting halls in New York City, where he was based until moving back to Toronto last fall, the week before September 11.

“I love these details,” he says, fanning the photos in front of me and pointing out things like solid metal chairs, emergency lights and piping snaking up the walls, motifs that all show up in his set for the ballet.

“Everyone’s been in a room like this,” says Levine. “It’s not like designing a very wealthy family’s 19th-century house, which most people won’t have been in.”

His sets for his lauded Canadian Opera Company productions — including two COC double bills, Robert Lepage’s Erwartung/Bluebeard’s Castle and Francois Girard’s Oedipus Rex/Symphony Of Psalms, remounted in COC’s next season — were striking expressionist statements. The Contract, grounded in reality, called for something more realistic.

“We kept taking aspects of naturalism but abstracting them slightly to evoke a sense of confinement,” he says. “But it was hard to find an alternative to naturalism. In the end we succumbed to it. The work actually calls for a place that feels real, in which stuff is supposed to take place.”

Though he’s been feted from Tokyo to Paris, Levine modestly acknowledges that set design is a collaborative art.

“I don’t have the freedom of a painter,” he says. “My job as a designer is to assess a situation on several levels — the performing space, the music, the story, how people move about, as well as outrageously practical constraints like how a big piece of scenery fits through the door of the theatre. The percentage of creativity after all that is” — he smiles and indicates a tiny space between thumb and forefinger — “this big.”

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