Dance Review: National Ballet of Canada/Frame by Frame (An Homage to Norman McLaren)

Dance Review: The National Ballet of Canada/Frame by Frame directed by Robert Lepage & choreographed by Guillaume Côté

Photo: Karolina Kuras

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 intense 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.

Photo: Karolina Kuras

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.

Photo: Karolina Kuras

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 world-wide 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.)

Photo: David Leclerc

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.

Photo: Karolina Kuras

Collectively, Lepage, Côté et al. have created one of the greatest ballets ever made in Canada/fait au Canada. It is a masterpiece.

Frame by Frame, The National Ballet of Canada, directed by Robert Lepage, choreographed by Guillaume Côté, Four Seasons Centre, Jun. 1 to 10, 2018.

 

Link to Frame by Frame tickets: https://national.ballet.ca/Productions/2017-18-Season/Frame-by-Frame.

 

Interview – Greta Hodgkinson, principal dancer, The National Ballet of Canada/Frame by Frame

Photo: David Leclerc

Interview with Greta Hodgkinson, principal dancer, The National Ballet of Canada, about the new Robert Lepage/Guillaume Côté work, Frame by Frame.

INTRODUCTION

The most highly anticipated dance event of the year has to be Frame by Frame, an homage to the life and work of film pioneer Norman McLaren, created by theatre icon Robert Lepage and choreographer Guillaume Côté. The production premieres on June 1.

Lepage’s name is spoken with reverence throughout the world. He is a genuine polymath, a director, writer, experimenter and innovator – in short., a creative genius. Fellow Québecois Côté is a principal dancer and associate choreographer with the National Ballet who has been much in demand throughout the world as a dance artist. Latterly, he has turned his hand to choreography, with a penchant for taking on difficult subjects that he vividly transforms into movement. Together, Lepage and Côté could be called theatrical royalty.

As for the idolized McLaren (1914-1987), the Scots-born filmmaker was brought to Montreal in 1941 by John Grierson, the founder of The National Film Board of Canada. McLaren went on to make the NFB famous world-wide for the new techniques he developed for both live action and animation. One of his most famous innovations was drawing directly on raw film stock. A quintessential McLaren work is the anti-war Neighbours (1952), which won a well-deserved Oscar for its brilliant fusion of live actors and animated images. And then there are his captivating dance films – Pas de Deux (1968), Ballet Adagio (1972) and Narcissus (1983) – which transformed movement into magical flights of imagination through McLaren’s breath-taking, pioneering use of the camera.

In the following interview, National principal dancer Greta Hodgkinson talks about being part of this all-important new dance work.

THE INTERVIEW

Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic

Did you know who Norman McLaren was before this piece?

I’m not sure any of us did. I had seen his film Pas de Deux at the ballet school, but I hadn’t put a name to it.

I was surprised to find out that Frame by Frame actually has named characters on stage. I thought it would be strictly about McLaren’s work.

It’s not a straight bio, but we do get glimpses of the people in his life. The main concentration is an overview of his pioneering film techniques, which we see through twenty or so vignettes. At certain points, the characters come in and collaborate with him. They are like cameo roles. Each vignette is about five or six minutes long and is self-contained in and of itself. When all the vignettes were in place, we then ran the show to see which scenes worked where. It’s actually a small cast in ballet terms with only sixteen dancers, so there were issues with costume changes etc.

You portray Evelyn Lambart who was one of McLaren’s collaborators. What do you know about her?

Evelyn was first a student of his before she became a close collaborator. As McLaren got more into movement fusion, she branched out on her own. She is now considered a great animation pioneer. For the film Begone Dull Care (1949) she and McLaren painted directly on filmstrips. In the dance vignette you see Evelyn and McLaren paint, cut, paste and edit. The vignette captures us in the act of creation. McLaren’s work was all analogue. He didn’t have any of the digital software available today.

Was there any character development on your part?

Not really. Because the scenes are so short, Jack Bertinshaw, who portrays McLaren, and I, have to establish our relationship – the dynamic between us – right from the start. I had to come in knowing who Evelyn was and what she meant to McLaren.

So are you only in the one scene?

No. Characters are brought back to life, so to speak. I also dance in ensemble pieces.

How did Robert and Guillaume divide the work?

You could say that they were co-bosses, but Robert was the concept man. It is really his show, and in developing the vignettes, he was meticulous in portraying the truth about McLaren. In other words, all the scenes are true to life. For example, all the costumes in the film sequences are taken directly from the films. Robert directed exits and entrances, action sequences, and life scenes etc., while Guillaume created all the dance movement.

What’s Guillaume’s choreography like?

He actually used a lot of different styles depending on the vignette. For example, he created jazzy movement to reflect jazz pianist Oscar Peterson’s score for Beyond Dull Care. As a general description, I’d say the choreography is a mix of contemporary ballet and modern dance.

Lepage always takes years to develop his pieces. You must have been working on Frame by Frame for a long time.

In fact it’s been three years. The first workshop was in 2015.

What’s it like to experience the Lepage development technique?

Photo: Elias Djemil-Matassov

Working with him was incredible. Robert surrounded us with a totally creative environment. We literally started off with a blank canvas. We first sat around a table and watched McLaren’s films. Robert’s main interest was translating McLaren to the stage. He encouraged us to come up with ideas on how to put McLaren into movement. If they didn’t work, he’d throw them out and we’d try something else. That is not how a big ballet company works. Usually the choreographer comes in and sets a piece in a matter of weeks. There’s no real input from the dancers. We’re also usually dealing with stories and characters in the large narrative ballets. But from the very beginning of developing Frame by Frame, Robert outlined very clearly that the inspiration for this piece was McLaren’s films, which was something new to us.

The name Lepage is synonymous with technology. How is your scene affected?

The lighting effects are wild, particularly how they are used on our bodies. We’re also playing against footage of Beyond Dull Care. It’s really difficult to describe.

What do you want the audience to take away from this dance piece?

First, I want them to recognize Frame by Frame as an homage to Norman McLaren and his work. I also want them to experience something different at the ballet, because this piece is a complete departure from anything we’ve ever done. They will also see the genius of Robert Lepage because the piece contains technology that the National has never worked with before.

Any final thoughts?

All the dancers are excited. Creating Frame by Frame was like being in a lab. We kept learning one new thing after another.

(The world premiere of Frame by Frame takes place on June 1 and runs at the Four Seasons Centre until June 10, 2018. Take note: there is no intermission. The link for tickets and info, http://paulacitron.ca/interviews/interview-greta-hodgkinson-principal-dancer-national-ballet-canada-frame-frame/.)