Moving Pictures: Frame by Frame at the National Ballet of Canada
Frame by Frame, a new Canadian ballet about National Film Board animator Norman McLaren, had its world premiere at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on June 1, and with results as variable as the lines and shapes animating one his low-budget, high-impact films. Masterminded by Canadian theatrical powerhouse Robert Lepage in collaboration with the NFB and National Ballet of Canada dancer and choreographer Guillaume Côté, the 110-minute work (whose final performances are this weekend) features 22 company dancers in addition to film, video and theatricalized special effects. But in addition to all the technological wizardry making this a ballet for the digital age, a small wooden body figure, the kind typically used by art students for figure drawing and appearing both at the beginning and the end of the intermissionless show, absorbs your attention. The bendable mannequin serves several purposes in the work, dramatically and thematically speaking.
First, it early on establishes the art-school roots of the Glasgow-born filmmaker who drew image and sound directly onto celluloid to expand the boundaries of creative animation. Second, it underscores McLaren’s deep-set fascination with the expandable kinetics of the human form and with movement in general, the inspiration behind his award-winning moving pictures. Third, being a kind of toy, it helps elucidate the filmmaker’s playful side. Finally, appearing at the end of the ballet as a stand-in for McLaren, who passed in 1987 at the age of 72, the double-jointed model symbolizes the hyper-flexible mind which shaped his long and arrestingly innovative career. It’s a small prop but it speaks volumes about the late Canadian film pioneer, and how well Lepage has read him in creating this, his first full-length ballet.
But while Lepage clearly knows his subject well – the most noteworthy films and major personal and professional turning points are all faithfully replicated here – he tends to reduce McLaren to that stick-figure prop, giving the work a sense of visual continuity. McLaren and his fellow NFB filmmakers (Evelyn Lambart, as danced by Greta Hodgkinson and the institution’s founder John Grierson, as played by Tomas Schramek, among them) are presented as a series of cameos without much flesh-and-blood dimensionality, causing Frame by Frame to be glib as well as emotionally and psychologically shallow in places. Scenes are also occasionally long-winded and without dramatic substance, making them feel dramatically flimsy, frivolous and cute.
Lepage’s McLaren — enthrallingly played by the lanky National Ballet second soloist Jack Bertinshaw (who uncannily resembles the slim, somewhat Gumby-looking filmmaker in real life) – comes across as a rubbery Buster Keatonesque dreamer who delights in a world of make-believe created from light and shadow. Even his homosexuality, which McLaren, in reality, closely guarded, keeping his relationship with NFB producer Guy Glover (engagingly danced by company second soloist Félix Paquet) mostly in the closet and hidden from public view during the 50-year period they were together as a couple, is coloured light and breezy, despite the times’ having been dangerous for gays.
Frame by Frame is billed as an homage (the word is projected cinematic style on an upstage screen), meaning it is not a biography but more a vehicle for giving praise. But by forcing onto McLaren a narrative as slight and silly as that of a cartoon, Lepage and company tend to flatten their objective. The ballet better succeeds when it giddily mimics the blips, pops, wavy lines and colour-saturated explosions of McLaren’s abstract films like the BAFTA award-winning Blinkity Blank (1955) and Begone Dull Care (1951) which graphically conceptualizes the effervescent rhythms in three pieces of jazz music by Oscar Peterson (here played by guest artist and actor Wellesley Robertson). Frame by Frame looks truly fantastic when it rises to the occasion of McLaren’s cinematic wit and brilliance. The visual presentation is a resounding wow.
Assisting Lepage on this front is a maverick team of theatrical and technical collaborators, consisting of creative director Steve Blanchet, set designer Christian Fontaine, lighting designer Étienne Boucher, projection concept designer Laurie-Shawn Borzovoy, video designer Thomas Payette, prop designer Claudia Gendreau, costume designer Michael Gianfrancesco, set designer Christian Fontaine and composer and sound designer Antoine Bédard (whew!), several of whom are affiliated with Lepage’s Ex Machina multidisciplinary production company in Quebec City. With their help, Lepage simulates numerous animation techniques pioneered by McLaren during his time at the NFB, including multiple exposures, slow motion, pixilation and stroboscopic effects.
The work’s collaborators don’t build on the filmmaker’s innovations in creating a unique aesthetic. But they do give a sense of how those innovations helped give rise to a whole new way of looking at dance on film. In that sense, as much as Lepage is in command of this show – Frame by Frame feels more directed than choreographed – the auteur is really McLaren. Footage from his NFB films and home movies thrillingly accent the dramatic flow while also providing inspiration for staged scenes reproducing some of their cinematographic content in real time. Neighbours, McLaren’s 1952 Oscar-winning anti-war film, for instance, is here configured as a mini-ballet which first soloists Dylan Tedaldi and Skylar Campbell perform with blizzard force. But the best-staged version of a McLaren is Côté’s truly breathtaking remake of Pas de deux, the seminal 1968 NFB dance film which basically defined the genre.
Set to atmospheric Romanian pan music, the original features choreography by Ludmilla Chiriaeff, the founder of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and its feeder school, École supérieure de ballet du Québec, who formed an early professional relationship with McLaren after the NFB had relocated to Montreal in the late 1950s. A 1969 radio interview they did together for Dance New York makes clear that the Berlin-trained Russian dancer and McLaren, both immigrants in a new land, were true collaborators, both taking an avant-garde approach to dance whose parameters both sought to expand through experimentation, one with technology, the other with a pared-down modernist ballet vocabulary intended to convey an intensity of emotion.
The creators of Frame by Frame pay loving tribute to their artistic partnership, taking care in one vignette to show how they might have met in a Montreal ballet studio where mirrored walls, reflecting multiple images of dancers at a time, may have inspired the Duchampian stroboscopic effects making their Pas de deux film (originally entitled Duo) such a visual marvel even today, some 50 years after its debut. Played by first soloist Alexandra MacDonald, Mme. Chiriaeff, as she was respectfully known, not only helped McLaren advance some of his ideas about dance on film but also helped nurture whole generations of ballet dancers through the creation of her school. Among the students who passed through the doors of her classical dance academy was Côté, who here honours that legacy with choreography that reproduces Chiriaeff’s own in the spirit of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery.
Magnificently performed by principal dancers Heather Ogden and Harrison James (the latter seen earlier in the ballet playing Canadian musician and frequent McLaren collaborator, Maurice Blackburn), the allegro dance steps are deceivingly simple – extended alongé and arabesque penchée poses, ballon and soft brisé jumps and grand jetés, for example. These typical ballet moves are seen in the Pas de deux film executed by dancers Margaret Mercier and Vincent Warren. But what makes them extraordinary is how McLaren refracts and extends those basic movements by slowing them down and multiplying them using superimposition and other filmic techniques. The dancers are translucent forms of light in a dance that is an optical illusion. It’s a brilliant moment, elevating Frame by Frame to the heights of greatness despite its other flaws.
Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for the last 32 years, she was her newspaper’s award-winning dance critic, from 1985 until 2001, before transitioning to the Style section as its senior fashion reporter in Milan, Paris, New York and cities across Canada. Her other accomplishments at Canada’s paper of record include stints as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime, a weekly lifestyle columnist covering the Toronto International Film Festival and celebrities, rock critic, business writer and cultural bureau chief in Montreal covering the arts in Quebec and Eastern Canada. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada’s most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.