Frame by Frame (An Homage to Norman McLaren): The National Ballet of Canada, directed by Robert Lepage, choreographed by Guillaume Côté at the Four Seasons Centre. Jun. 1 to 10, 2018.
The world premiere of the National Ballet of Canada’s Frame by Frame left me stunned and speechless, the former due to the work’s eye-popping, even mind-boggling, visual assault on the senses, the latter because words can’t possibly capture the piece’s immense canvas of creativity.
In short — Frame by Frame is a work of genius (directed by Robert Lepage and choreographed by Guillaume Côté) about a man of genius (Norman Mclaren).
The ballet is an homage to McLaren (1914-1987), the great film pioneer and founder of the animation department of The National Film Board of Canada, who made the name of the organization famous throughout the world. In fact, there is an oft-repeated belief in Hollywood circles that whoever is accepting an Oscar for best animated short subject, it is probably a Canadian.
I realize it is bad journalism for the writer to impose herself as first person into a review, but for this production, I can’t help myself. Viewing Frame by Frame is an intensely personal experience. At the opening night, the bond between the stage events and the audience was so strong it was palpable. We were willing and able, so to speak. Our job was to react, and we did with enthusiastic response throughout the dance. The audience was totally alive, and I’ve never seen its like before at the ballet. We energetically clapped at the end of each scene, and tossed in whistles and whoops when we really, really liked something, not to mention our wholehearted laughter at some of the more humorous elements.
The work itself is built around a succession of short vignettes devoted to a McLaren film, and usually highlighting one of his many collaborators. For example, we see McLaren (Jack Bertinshaw) and Evelyn Lambart (Greta Hodgkinson) portraying, in movement, their innovative technique of creating images directly on filmstrip for Begone Dull Care (1949), while behind them is projected an explosion of colours from the film. In fact, several of McLaren’s famous movies are actually recreated on stage, notably Neighbours (1952) and A Chairy Tale (1957). Some scenes also focus on McLaren’s personal life such as his relationship with his life partner, actor, director, producer Guy Glover (Félix Paquet). Clearly, this ballet has made second soloist Bertinshaw a star given his luminous performance, and the young dancer was inundated with a rousing chorus of cheers during his solo bows.
At over two hours without an intermission, the piece is overlong, and at some point, my inner clock was telling me that Lepage needed a ruthless editor. Lepage, however, has always taken his own sweet time when it comes to showcasing his creative imagination and critics be damned. And to be truthful, just which of the divine cameos would you throw out? — and the answer is, absolutely nothing. Each of the scenes is a gem, bursting with a radiance of imagination that demands to be seen.
Lepage is one of Canada’s theatrical superstars with a worldwide following. His name is also synonymous with technology, and Frame by Frame is a tour-de-force of the astonishing images that can happen when lighting, video and projections meet live action. The play with light and shadow on a dancer’s body is eye-popping. Particularly fetching is when this production actually copies McLaren’s animation techniques and out does McLaren at his own game! At times it is even impossible to tell what is real life and what is recorded. Each vignette has its own breath-taking singularity. One prime example is the scene where NFB founder John Grierson (Tomas Shramek) meets with McLaren and Glover to invite them to join his organization. The three men are seated at a table while an overhead camera captures on a big screen their lively conversation portrayed by the patterns made by three pairs of hands. (See what I mean? These words just don’t cut it in describing the brilliance of the vignette.)
Which brings us to choreographer Côté, the National’s choreographic associate, who has covered himself in glory with this ballet. His modus operandi is a combination of McLaren’s actual movement from his films and Côté’s own original steps. In the latter case, he has come up with unique movement for each vignette and there is never a hint of repetition. Completely delightful, for example, is the choreography for McLaren when he is in the throes of imagining a new animation technique. Bertinshaw’s body shimmies and shakes with supple ease while his arms twirl in circles. He is literally a whirling dervish with every part of him breathlessly alive and alert. He is the quintessential cartoon character with a light bulb over his head. Because Côté intimately knows the National’s dancers, he is able to cast judiciously, and in return, the company does him proud. In summary, Côté’s choreography is at the heart of the piece as it embraces McLaren as creator and collaborator. Solos, pas de deux, ensembles – every movement detail seems a perfect proportion of expression.
During the curtain calls, and there were many, I counted 19 performers and 13 members of the creative team. I don’t have the words to convey the triumph of the score, sets, costumes, and particularly the lighting and video designs. To do these elements justice would be an overwhelming task. Lepage always works with an army of collaborators when he is developing a new work for his Ex Machina company, and clearly, for Frame by Frame, he brought along his A-team.
Collectively, Lepage, Côté et al. have created one of the greatest ballets ever made in Canada/fait au Canada. It is a masterpiece.