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Emerging Arts Critics Programme

Forward Momentum in Frame by Frame

By Josette Halpert
  • Harrison James, Heather Ogden and Artists of the Ballet in Frame by Frame / Photo by Karolina Kuras
  • Greta Hodgkinson and Félix Paquet in Frame by Frame / Photo by Karolina Kuras
  • Dylan Tedaldi with Artists of the Ballet in Frame by Frame / Photo by Karolina Kuras

Have you ever yearned to step into the mind of a genius – and an Academy Award–winning genius at that? The National Ballet of Canada, in partnership with ExMachina and the National Film Board of Canada, makes that possible in their work Frame by Frame, an exciting multi-disciplinary production inspired by animation pioneer Norman McLaren, on stage at the Four Seasons Centre June 1st through 10th. 

As the curtain rises, Frame by Frame begins with a single projected dancer running across screen to the tick of a shutter. From there, the production follows McLaren’s life, from his early innovations in 1936 to 1987 with him still improvising at age 72. 

Director Robert LePage and choreographer Guillaume Côté pair true reproductions of McLaren’s films, such as Neighbours (1952), La Merle (1958) and Canon (1964), with modern realizations of his works. Just like McLaren, the NBoC’s collaborators successfully strip back story and allow the music’s swelling, forms of dance expression and technological marvels to evoke meaning through movement. 

Movement, the sole motivator that began McLaren’s shift from art to film, acts as a narrator for Frame by Frame. It is through movement that the audience learns of the era in which he lived, the world he travelled, the private and professional relationships that make up each etch in his historical celluloid. As McLaren says, “Animation is not the art of drawings that move but the art of movements that are drawn.” Throughout the show’s two hours and nine minutes, we witness McLaren’s gift of making art that moves while he and his collaborators move art forward in its making. 

Like McLaren, Frame by Frame’s contributors layer their movements, histories, years of expertise and relationships to create a unique form of harmony. Côté, whose choreographic talents have been showcased for the last three consecutive seasons at the NBoC, both honours McLaren’s work and complements it with a variety of dance practices. Together, Côté and second soloist Jack Bertinshaw, who danced the principal role of McLaren on June 2nd, capture his sense of playful humour in movement. First soloist Skylar Campbell seamlessly articulates sound through movement, allowing rhythm to flow through his body, transforming it into abstract dance. He reincarnates McLaren’s A Chairy Tale with each sharp movement and zing of the sitar. Clever staging then offers a glimpse “behind the scenes” as a switch of lighting reveals a camera crew and stage hands cloaked in black creating the chair’s coy dance. 

LePage reimagines Pas de deux (1968) with the same awe-inspiring production value that has gleaned him standout collaborations with Cirque du Soleil and the Canadian Opera Company. He projects an onscreen hand that interacts with an onstage dancer, Principal Harrison James, outlining the contours of his body with a paintbrush. James unfurls his body, exhibiting glorious strength rotating in attitude derrière as the camera tracks his female counterpart, Principal Dancer Heather Ogden. As Bertinshaw puffs McLaren’s cigarette, smoke appears onscreen, causing Ogden’s shadow to dissipate, vanishing into smoke. Original freeze frames from the film are met with refined simulations, recapturing the familiar spirit of flurried legs set to the tune of a pan flute. Here, as explained by McLaren, one must “realize that, in this person’s dancing, there is something new”. 

In Frame by Frame’s last moments, ambient music swells and the running dancer from the opening curtain returns. He looks back to rejoice in McLaren’s final dance with the people and places he loves. A single light, reminiscent of an aged film projector, flickers off, completing its cycle. 

Frame by Frame invites its audiences into the minds of not only this Academy Award winner but also of two contemporary innovators, Lepage and Côté. The National Ballet of Canada succeeds in transforming this classical dance style into a multidimensional experience in an age of technology.

After a thunderous standing ovation, there is a sense that somewhere in a lingering puff of smoke, an overcast shadow or in the flicker of a projector light, McLaren’s spirit graces the stage alongside LePage and Côté. Drawing on their distinct artistic tools and techniques, together they outline the potential of the Canadian performing arts and the key to its forward momentum – collaboration.

The National Ballet of Canada performs Frame by Frame from June 1 through June 10 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto.

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