Review: ‘Frame by Frame,’ a Ballet That Puts a Filmmaker Center Stage

June 3, 2018, Alastair Macaulay, The New York Times

TORONTO — The British Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren makes a peculiar protagonist for a full-length work of dance theater. Yet he, a pioneer in aspects of animation and direction, was inspired by dance throughout his career. On Friday night, the National Ballet of Canada presented, at this city’s Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts, the world premiere of a two-hour tribute to him: “Frame by Frame,” directed by Robert Lepage, with choreography by Guillaume Côté. It’s seldom that ballet attracts a director of Mr. Lepage’s status; the great passages of this production are all his.

Mainly, “Frame by Frame” is about McLaren’s work — proceeding from 1937 to 1986, a year before his death, though in a less chronological order than it pretends to do so. Its two outstanding sequences, however, are about the connection of life and art. They’re diametrically dissimilar.

The first of these is when McLaren — having just met Guy Glover, who becomes his partner — is first led to see ballet. We’re shown “Swan Lake” back to front: McLaren, in the audience, is behind the dancers. The Swan Queen and Prince Siegfried begin with dreamlike rapidity; the music’s sped up. Suddenly McLaren (played by Jack Bertinshaw), leaping over the footlights, dances too — not the same choreography as theirs, something far sillier and funnier. You feel the bathos of this nondancer’s dancing, but you also love the release and rapture he exhibits.

For a moment, Glover (Félix Paquet), who’s working as a stagehand in the wings, is perplexed by McLaren’s presence onstage. But then he joins in, whereupon the ballet’s tempo slows to real time. Dancing around the “Swan Lake” pas de deux, McLaren and Glover move nothing like the ballet characters. Still, their love for each other and for the art becomes absurdly, touchingly vivid. (The effect seems modeled on that in Matthew Bourne’s internationally popular 1995 “Swan Lake,” where the tragicomic Prince longs for a lyricism he never fully masters.)

Parts of “Frame by Frame” have written captions, as if the whole production were a documentary film. Thus, much later, we see the words “Pas de Deux”: McLaren is filming two dancers, Margaret Mercier and Vincent Warren, in a duet choreographed by his friend Ludmilla Chiriaeff. McLaren’s 13-minute film “Pas de Deux” (1968), one of his many award-winning creations, has been called his masterpiece — and yet the version that Mr. Lepage puts onstage is more remarkable. It shows at least four levels of reality.

At the back of the stage are McLaren and a colleague, filming, in the shadows. In the light and in the foreground, Mercier (Heather Ogden) and Warren (Harrison James) dance — first apart and then together, to Romanian pan-pipe music. They’re counterbalanced by their enlarged, black-and-white screen images, seen at different angles from the theater audience’s.

Then, electrifyingly, a fourth layer arrives on the screen, in color, larger yet — and gentle. First you see McLaren’s hand and pen (both immense) as he begins to work on the screen image; later his eye, part of his face, his cigarette. Now the cigarette’s white smoke morphs into one more aspect of the film — the addition of still or moving black-and-white afterimages.

In 1968, this use of after-imaging was the latest of McLaren’s many innovations: It still gives “Pas de Deux” far more poetry than Chiriaeff’s original choreography. But whereas its importance is largely historical now, Mr. Lepage makes it newly enthralling by showing it happening as if in McLaren’s mind.

This is where we sense McLaren best as an imaginative artist: the appraising eye, the tender pen. Mr. Côté’s choreography almost always keeps McLaren as a character in a Chaplin movie or a ballet by Leonide Massine (the world’s dominant choreographer when McLaren was a young man): jerky, gestural, excitable, cartoonlike. (Like most of the other leading characters here, McLaren wears glasses.)

Mr. Lepage and Mr. Côté produce a film-and-dance version of “Neighbours” (1952), the film of which McLaren was proudest because of its message about “the covetousness of man.” For all its dance theatricalization, the “Frame by Frame” version is remarkably close in tone to the original. The same is even true of several other McLaren films that here become short stage ballets: “Synchromy” (1971), for example.

A dance historian could spend time connecting these films to the stage work of choreographers from Oskar Schlemmer (1883-1943) to Alwin Nikolais (1910-1993). But in all those I find the effect dehumanizing, and Mr. Côté is not in their league. (Two of his “McLaren” ballets are deadly dull.)

When Mr. Côté stages a “Time” duet to show us how mutual support made the love of McLaren and Glover endure, he produces a copybook example of the same-sex duet. Though he shows us the men’s courtesy to each other, he makes neither man real as a personality (you keep wondering which one is which). On first viewing, you may well think “Time” is just another McLaren movie experiment. (It ends by merging them into a single shape.)

Another same-sex duet for McLaren’s long-term colleague Evelyn Lambert (1914-1999) and a girlfriend has more humanity, but so what? Her private life here is an irrelevance.

Loose ends proliferate throughout “Frame to Frame,” such as a 1949 trip to Shanghai, shown in terms of a short Pathé film documentary, a stage sequence about McLaren finding inspiration from Chinese calligraphy and then a bizarre duet for two Maoist women soldiers. Why is the “Swan Lake” scene danced to the 1877 version of Tchaikovsky’s score that was unknown in the 1930s? Why do the Swan Queen, Prince Siegfried and all the other ballet figures of the 1930s and 1940s move with anachronistically high extensions?

Yet “Frame by Frame,” however uneven and short of dance interest, is made singular, even haunting, by Mr. Lepage’s finer flights of poetry. We seldom sense here any beating heart within its McLaren, but his world and his achievements fall into a new perspective.