Frame by Frame: challenging the Theatre

Frame by Frame: challenging the Theatre

by Dina Ginzburg

TORONTO – This June, Toronto saw the world premiere of “Frame by Frame”, a mammoth production from the National Ballet of Canada, choreographer Guillaume Côté, visionary director Robert Lepage (Ex Machina) and the National Film Board of Canada. The ballet is based on the life of Norman McLaren, a Scottish-Canadian animator and filmmaker, and founder of the National Film Board’s animation studio.

The work takes a fully interdisciplinary approach. McLaren’s films and animations are projected on the blank backdrop, while the National Ballet’s dancers perform a mix of classical and more contemporary choreography, which echoes and often replicates the videos. “Frame by Frame” tracks McLaren’s life and work by retelling his encounters with the filmmakers, artists, dancers, and musicians who would shape him. McLaren came to be a proponent for the commonality between film and dance. In his eyes, the two were not only informed by, but were, one another.

McLaren’s engagement with movement brings to mind the manifesto of another notable Canadian: Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan’s renowned motto was ‘the medium is the message.’ Part of a larger framework, the phrase, very simply put, encapsulates the idea that how anything is conveyed irrevocably and irreversibly influences what is being conveyed.  Applying this theory to Lepage’s work, the experience and value of traditional ballet is thrown into question.

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Photo by Karolina Kuras © 2018

Lighting is one of the production’s prevalent mediums, so heavily featured that is a character in its own right. The dancers’ bodies become screens, acting as receptors and activators of strobe lights and projections. Without them, there would be nothing to look at besides a flat backdrop flooded with flashes and stripes. With the body as an incorporated medium, the strips of light become three dimensional human forms and strobe effects create the illusion of crackling film.

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Artists of the Ballet. Photo by Karolina Kuras © 2018

Curiously, or perhaps not so, the audience applauded the animations as much as the live dancers. It is rare to hear an audience clap for a film, and yet, in the setting of the Four Seasons Centre, with live performance as the evening’s prevailing medium, the pre-recorded videos seem to be processed in the same way as the ballet, and applause is normalized. The medium intrinsically, subtly, influences the perception of the message. McLaren, dead since 1987, cannot hear the applause, and yet his animations are deemed as worthy of it as the National Ballet’s second soloist Jack Bertinshaw’s or principal dancer Heather Ogden’s faultless performances.

One of the last scenes in Frame by Frame features Heather Ogden and Harrison James dancing an excerpt from McLaren’s “Pas de Deux”, a ballet film that was captured using an original technique in which dancers’ bodies are filmed from every angle and movement is split and re-fused, frame by frame. The result is two figures moving in real time with each second of their previous movement trailing behind, leaving an infinite amount of ghostly impressions of limbs across the screen. Ogden and James danced the piece in front of the projection, their movements (at least seemingly) projected live. Watching the video juxtaposed with the quite different-looking dance before it, it becomes clear that the piece is no longer just ballet. Instead, through the medium of film, a simple pas de deux has become an exposition of lines, shapes, movement, angles; everything that already exists in ballet but only becomes explicit to the audience through a different medium. The choreography is the same, but the medium becomes the message as the line of congruency blurs.

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Harrison James and Heather Ogden with Artists of the Ballet in Frame by Frame. Photo by Karolina Kuras © 2018

So where does that leave us? If a recording can have as much cultural clout as a live performance and a camera can overturn a piece of choreography, how much power does the medium of live theatre actually hold? There is no neatly packaged answer, at least not yet. Much in the way that McLaren was dissatisfied with advances in cinematic technology, being ‘of the opinion that the art form had yet to fully come into its own,’ so does Lepage reject traditional theatre as ballet’s final frontier.  By melding McLaren’s techniques with Côté’s choreography, Lepage’s “Frame by Frame” challenges the sanctity of live performance and the very absorption of art.

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