Lights. Camera. Action!
Robert Lepage and Guillaume Côté deliver all of these and more in the highly anticipated world premiere of Frame by Frame by The National Ballet of Canada, running from June 1st through 10th at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.
Characterized by Lepage as “an homage from the digital age to Norman McLaren,” Frame by Frame interweaves classical ballet and film animation in a multimedia experience that challenges conventional perceptions of artistic disciplines.
This three-year creative collaboration brings together three generations of Canadian artistic talent: McLaren, Lepage and Côté. McLaren, the inspiration for the production, transformed the filmmaking world in the mid-twentieth century, pioneering innovative film techniques and founding the National Film Board’s animation studio. In Frame by Frame, two visionaries come together to coproduce a tribute to McLaren. Lepage, a decorated Renaissance man of the theatre, has presented his wizardry on stages abroad and at home, including the National Arts Centre and the Canadian Opera Company; the Stratford Festival will receive his magic touch later this year. Côté, a gifted principal dancer and choreographic associate with the National Ballet of Canada, has created works for the likes of the Toronto International Film Festival and the 2015 Pan Am Games. Frame by Frame is his second full-length ballet.
Alternating between dance sequences and projections of McLaren’s films, Frame by Frame depicts a linear narrative of McLaren’s life alongside abstract exhibitions of his film techniques. Acclaimed McLaren works such as Neighbours (1952) and Pas de deux (1968) breathe new life as recreations onstage or as fusions of performance and projection. Thanks to the projection of key dates and names, audiences can easily follow timelines and sequencing.
Frame by Frame opens with a projected white silhouette leaping across the stage; the title appears afterwards in white letters, imitating film credits. Dancers then mimic the silhouette’s leaping action, blurring the distinction between projection and live performance. This nebulous division between digital and human performance forges the crux of the production.
Lepage and Côté’s talents colour every detail in Frame by Frame. Tensions could easily emerge between technology and dance, but each artist executes his respective craft in a way that enhances the other. In one scene, a ballet mistress teaches students in front of a four-way mirror that is later replaced by dancers emulating each other’s movements; this illustrates, impeccably, the harmony cultivated between stage direction and choreography.
Throughout the production, dancers deftly recreate scenes from numerous McLaren films and demonstrate astounding precision in aligning their movements to projections. Dance styles range from classical to jazz to contemporary to fit the mood of each scene. The rendition of Pas de deux is particularly evocative, pairing digital projection with exquisite performance by Principal Dancers Heather Ogden and Harrison James.
Nearing Frame by Frame’s end, all the dancers emerge from a fog, kindling a celebration of the exceptional artist’s life. A subsequent strobe light effect is mildly distracting but also brings to mind the bright flares of a projector’s lamp at the end of a film, eliciting further nostalgia.
Frame by Frame shows great care in its every detail. Notably, nearly all musical selections and footage are from McLaren’s works, reinforcing the production’s fidelity to his art. Lighting adds an additional layer of complexity. In one especially striking moment, a filmstrip projected on screen outlines dancers’ silhouettes in each frame. On an otherwise dark stage, the lighting effectively captures the dancers’ poses.
Embracing its identity as an interdisciplinary work, Frame by Frame reimagines ballet for a digital world, stretching the genre and showcasing the possibilities of collaboration across artistic disciplines. Its ambition to pack many ideas and effects into roughly two hours is highly worthy of praise but blurs some of the production’s finer details and narrative coherence. Nonetheless, Frame by Frame is a brilliant addition to the repertoire of works that celebrate collaboration across mediums.
A poignant quote from McLaren notes that “people will come along and do new things and sometimes return to the spirit of an earlier age” and Frame by Frame wholly captures the essence of his words.
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.