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

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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

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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/.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DANCE OPENINGS. Nov. 18 to 24.

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DANCE OPENINGS. Nov. 18 to 24.

Hi-Fi: Rumschpringe. Dancemakers. AD Michael Trent has turned the fall season over to his company members who have come up with their own creation. Rumschpringe is the Amish word for growing up and leaving the nest. info@dancemakers.org(Opens Nov. 20).

Speak, Love. Black and Blue Productions. Sasha Ivanochko has choreographed a lovers’ conversation duet for herself and Brendan Wyatt, inspired by the writings of Rumi and Roland Barthes. www.brownpapertickets.com/event/456890(Opens Nov. 21.)

Innovation. National Ballet of Canada. AD Karen Kain invites Canadian choreographers to create new works for the company. Features world premieres by José Navas, Robert Binet and yes, the Grand Poo-Bah himself, James Kudelka. Also, a new work by Guillaume Côté. http://national.ballet.ca/performances/boxoffice/(Opens Nov. 22.)

Dance Review – Kevin O’Day’s Hamlet

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Given the fact that ballet audiences are notoriously conservative, Karen Kain has taken a huge chance on Kevin O’Day’s Hamlet. In particular, composer John King’s original score is of the snap, crackle and pop variety, much like Thom Willems’ music for William Forsythe. The choreography is relentlessly contemporary ballet, filled with flexed feet and angular arms. Nonetheless, the opening night audience seemed to be exceedingly positive, especially toward Guillaume Côté in the title role.

O’Day is American so Hamlet must have been on his high school curriculum somewhere. On the other hand, he did dance with Forsythe’s Frankfurt Ballet, and since 2002, he’s been artistic director of Mannheim’s National Theatre Ballet so he will have soaked up German influences. In fact, this work was created for Stuttgart Ballet in 2008, a home for contemporary ballet on the edge if ever there was.

I deliberately did not read the scenario, waiting to see how the ballet would unfold – in other words, to find out how well-defined a storyteller O’Day is. His Hamlet shows that he clearly knows Shakespeare’s characters and their relationships. There is no revisionism when it comes to the conversion of the tragedy to dance. To get around the band of actors, he cleverly transforms the troupe into Two Travelling Dancers (Elena Lobsanova and Dylan Tedaldi) to re-enact the story of the murder of Hamlet’s father.

One other innovation is the eight-member corps de ballet who when they are not courtiers, don veils over their faces to become omens of death, or furies within Hamlet’s conscience, or agents to spur on revenge, or symbols of tragedy. Their impact is too little, too late, and they are a weak link in terms of theatrical effects. For example, during the final duel scene, they form a clump on the upper gallery and perform a slow march the length of the tier while Hamlet and Laertes (McGee Maddox) are engaged in a life and death struggle below. At first they are distracting, and then they become invisible as one’s attention focuses on the fight.

As for the choreography, O’Day (whom himself was a star with Twyla Tharp and well-acquainted with her choreographic challenges), has created a bravura role in Hamlet. Any male dancer is going to look like a stand-out given the physical twists and turns he must negotiate. There are three long solos that are all a gymnastic/acrobatic tour de force. O’Day seems to love slow lunges and elongated stretches that lead into fast turns and showy jumps. Out-thrust limbs propel the body in multi-directions, asking the dancer to bend like a contortionist. Côté has the technique to pull the choreography off smartly and the acting skills to nuance character. For example, his first solo is almost that of a spoiled brat having a tantrum, sitting by his father’s grave, hugging his knees, and then letting his arms and legs flay about. His rage is palpable – he is a man torn between duty and will.

The partnering looks dangerous which is always a crowd pleaser. In Hamlet’s pas de deux with Ophelia (Heather Ogden), the poor girl is lifted overhead with split legs, to fall upside down – a favourite manoeuvre of O’Day’s to the point of excess repetition. Yet O’Day is able to build in emotional differences. A tender first duet with Ophelia, followed by one of Hamlet’s rejection when he feels she has betrayed him as a spy for her father Polonius (Jonathan Renna) and his uncle Claudius (Jiri Jelinek). With Gertrude (Stephanie Hutchison), there is warmth between mother and son, albeit strained. The dances between Gertrude and Claudius, on the other hand, are brimming with sexual undercurrents.

O’Day has also created two showy roles for both Claudius and Laertes, and in both Jelinek and Maddox, he has exceptional dancers. Jelinek is sophisticated and sexy, and cuts a commanding figure on the stage. He radiates control and O’Day has given Claudius strong, bold moves to reinforce that persona. Maddox’s Laertes has all the exuberance of youth with superfast spins and jumps. Yet his grief over the death of both father and sister rings true. Both dancers are also excellent actors.

Ogden is a strong technical dancer, yet she manages to submerge her strength in Ophelia’s frailty, which is not an easy thing to do. O’Day has her execute some strange things, such as punch her head into Hamlet’s stomach in the rejection pas de deux, which we take to be her desperation to find his love again. She is certainly tossed about by Hamlet, both in affection and rejection, with overhead cartwheels and awkward flexes in her body, but she radiates vulnerability throughout. Her suicide scene is quite poignant.

Hutchison’s Gertrude shows the woman’s weaknesses, attempting to walk that fine line between lust for Claudius and mother’s love for Hamlet. Her choreography is reactive, a feather in the wind, giving in to both lover and son. Hutchison has always been a very intelligent dancer, and she once again shows her ability to understand what is required of her in terms of Gertrude’s personality.

Horatio (Brendan Saye) is an interesting role. He has to show a strong presence as Hamlet’s companion, plus perform the final solo of the ballet which could be anticlimactic. Saye is certainly someone to watch. He seems to be a dancing actor of keen intelligence as well as possessing a flawless technique. Horatio’s choreography is one of formality and correctness, but Saye is never stiff. His Horatio is eloquent in his concern for his friend, and after Hamlet’s death, noble in his grief.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Robert Stephen and Christopher Stalzer) are the fun roles, full of spice and vinegar – jokesters of a dangerous type. Renna’s Polonius is upright and correct, yet always in the moment. As for the Two Travelling Dancers, they have to be sprightly, energetic and very technical which Lobsanova and Tedaldi are. Tedaldi is another one to watch. Kevin D. Bowles has fun drumming bone on skull as the comic relief Gravedigger, and it’s nice to see Peter Ottmann on stage as the stately Osric, the referee of the Hamlet/Laertes duel.

Tatyana van Walsum’s set is very stark. The lower walls are a burnt orange, while the stage itself is surrounded by a meshed upper gallery accessed by two steel staircases. Both the upper tier and the lower stage have concealed doors in the blackness. O’Day has elected to place various characters in the upper gloom to foretell of things to come, like Polonius and Claudius spying on Hamlet. Or else they are dimly lit behind one of the upper doors as a symbol of doom. In fact, I find Mark Stanley’s lighting design too dark over all, and I doubt if audiences in the fifth ring are going to be able to see specific staging details. There are also two exceedingly ugly drops, a see-through puce green scrim at the front, and a clearer-coloured one at the back. Both have some weird kind of design that look like cow hide colouring. If there is some kind of design symbolism, it eludes me.

As for van Walsum’s costumes, she has opted for a smart contemporary look. Hamlet, of course, is in black, with a very attractive mesh sweater top and slightly baggy trousers. The other men wear much the same design but in different colours. The women are in short dresses or skirts. I do have one complaint, however. Claudius’ burnt orange costume is similar to the colour worn by Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern. I realize it shows they are on the same side, but it means that Claudius loses his distinctive presence on stage, while Laertes’ gray and Horatio’s blue stand-out amid the crowd.

As for King’s score, which is part recorded and part live, it mostly comes in short bursts of electronica sounds, or brief spurts of orchestral chords. One does begin to feel over time that it would be nice to have a flow, a continuum, a run of music, no matter how dissonant the noise. It feels that the music never gets really started before it stops. Conductor David Briskin comes up to the plate in pulling the live and recorded forces together. One of the trombonists gets a special bow for, presumably, his blasts on the horn. The best part of the score is the disco beat of the court party when the Two Travelling Dancers appear.

So, on a first go round, how does Hamlet fare? The ballet has some great roles, particularly for the men. It’s a North American premiere which makes it unique to the National on this side of the Atlantic. While Hamlet has eye-catching, edgy choreography, it does, unfortunately, suffer from repetition, especially in the first act. One can, however, live with the score because the choreography is relatively strong. More to the point, Hamlet shows off the company well. It should have a shelf life because it does demand repeated viewings, which is always a good sign. I left wanting to see Hamlet a second time (as opposed to never again).

Hamlet, National Ballet of Canada, choreographed by Kevin O’Day, Four Seasons Centre, Jun. 1 to 10, 2012.