Norman McLaren homage Frame by Frame is impressive and overstuffed

June 2, 2018, Michael Crabb, The Star

Frame by Frame, the National Ballet of Canada’s hugely pre-hyped homage/tribute to pioneering Scottish-Canadian film animator Norman McLaren tries to cover so much ground in an intermissionless, stroboscopic 130 minutes that, despite many magical moments, its effect can be dizzying to the point of incoherence.

The work’s two Quebec-born masterminds, legend-in-his-own lifetime director Robert Lepage and National Ballet choreographic associate Guillaume Côté have conjoined objectives. They are in agreement that a passion for dance and movement was McLaren’s key inspiration, thus making a meeting of dance and film history on stage entirely appropriate.

In part they deliver a functionally biographical account, complete with occasional projected captions, of McLaren’s life (1914-1987) including references to his sojourns in New York and Mao’s China. More ambitiously they attempt to probe the workings of his fertile imagination and McLaren’s magnetic role in attracting a team of gifted collaborators to the young National Film Board of Canada that made that estimable institution a world leader in animation.

Unless you’re a film animation buff, McLaren’s name may not spontaneously ring any bells. Serious dance fans will recognize McLaren because of his three overtly dance-centred productions, most famously 1968’s Pas de deux with its eerie trail of ghost images. McLaren’s ode to ballet is lovingly evoked in Frame by Frame by Heather Ogden and Harrison James, echoing originators Margaret Mercier and Vincent Warren. Even the original’s choreographer, Les Grands Ballet Canadiens founder Ludmilla Chiriaeff makes an appearance, performed with almost coquettish European poise by Alexandra MacDonald.

Pas de deux is among several McLaren films that resurface in Frame by Frame. Wellesley Robertson portrays Oscar Peterson in a nod to the McLaren/Evelyn Lambart 1949 drawn-on-film animation, Begone Dull Care. Dylan Tedaldi and Skylar Campbell channel NFBers Grant Munro and Jean-Paul Ladouceur as they fight to the death over a contested flower in the 1952 pixillation short, Neighbours with its controversial sequence that was cut from the Academy Award-winning version where the men murder each other’s wife and infant. On stage it comes across as comical where the original was anything but.

John Grierson, the Scottish-born father of the NFB who first encountered McLaren as a student in Glasgow in 1936 and who we see recruiting him and his friend Guy Glover in 1941 in a New York café — Lepage goes to town on that scene with real-time overhead video projections — never much liked Neighbours but in Tomas Schramek’s portrayal he is characterized as a mostly kindly and decisive mentor.

A Chairy Tale, another moralistic stop-motion pixillation short from 1957 is recreated as a black-light number but with black costumed figures manipulating the chair as we are shown in brief fully lit moments. The original utilized strings.

While the Neighbours and Chairy Tale sequences are fun they are pale shadows of their originals. It’s when Lepage and Côté move into abstract territory, the area in which McLaren achieved some of his most remarkable work, that Frame by Frame rises to moments of haunting beauty, visually and choreographically. McLaren’s experiments with visual music/graphical sound are justly honoured, particularly in a segment devoted to 1971’s Synchromy.

Ballet by its nature is a multidisciplinary undertaking, but in Frame by Frame this is extended and enhanced by the digital wizardry of Lepage and his Quebec-city-based creative laboratory, Ex Machina. It’s very much to Côté’s credit that his choreography is not submerged in the process. He varies his dance language from full-on classicism via jazz to a contemporary mode to suit each context.

In compressing as much as they have Lepage and Côté still don’t quite manage to deliver — if, to be fair, that is possible — a compelling impression of just how extraordinary a human being Norman McLaren was. The personal side of his 50-year relationship with NFB producer Guy Glover, who according to McLaren was the one who chose to be keep their love mostly closeted, is left unexplored; although it’s clear they formed the nucleus of a cosily accommodatingly NFB family.

The world premiere of anything with the name Robert Lepage attached to it is destined to be a major theatrical event. You could sense the excitement and readiness to be enchanted among an audience that, because of the show’s iconic subject and its director, probably attracted a sizable contingent of non-regular ballet-goers. There was frequent applause and a high-decibel concluding ovation. The 19-member cast, which barring injuries will remain unchanged throughout the 11-performance run, fully merited it, especially Jack Bertinshaw as an engagingly whimsical McLaren.

Popular success that it is, the production could still use some fine tuning. It’s a hugely complex show in every aspect. Regardless, Frame by Frame is a timely reminder of Norman McLaren’s importance as a creative artist and for a new generation serves as an engaging introduction to his rare genius.

 
 
 
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