Overall it must be questioned whether ballet is the right medium for a biographical tribute. Ballet by the limits of its nature is only able to give a broad brushstroke, a stylized impression of what a person stood for. Details of historical context, complex personal stories and exploration of inner drive fall by the wayside; all questions you seek in a biographical treatment remain opaque. In “Frame by Frame” a new ballet for the National Ballet of Canada directed by Robert LePage and choreographed Guillaume Côté, ballet was interspersed with film and overlaid with interactive effects by Ex Machina, yet it remained a fragmentary picture of their subject, Norman McLaren.
Who is Norman McLaren, you ask. The National Film Board and the National Ballet of Canada are here to answer that very question—“Frame” did have more than slight PSA overtones. Born in Scotland in 1914, McLaren was a pioneering filmmaker and animator, the program notes tell me, and he founded the National Film Board’s animation studio. Broken into a series of short vignettes, “Frame” served as an introduction to McLaren’s life and work, whether it was an inspiring one lies with the individual. The ballet was designed to resemble the cinematic experience—two hours sans intermission in a pitch-black theatre, the orchestra pit vacant.
“Frame” was a different experience for a ballet-going audience, and expectations were upended. Ex Machina’s effects created a different tone, a mechanical, behind-the-scenes atmosphere, apt for the life of an auteur. In a couple of scenes, the action was filmed from an overhead vantage, and projected in realtime onto the scrim. Time was made visible, too, with the dancers’ path translated into a digital shadow. But effects, while something to look at, a ballet do not make, and the dancing was largely an aside to the sound and light show; a sort of flesh-and-blood counterpoint to the digital dance.
Dancers also recreated segments of McLaren’s work, such as his 1952 film, Neighbours. I was not previously acquainted with this work so when the Neighbours sketch culminated in wife-beating and drop-kicking babies (dolls) into the wings, it caught me by surprise. Alas, “Frame by Frame” unfurled in one dismal scene after the next. In China, we encountered a pair of Red Guards en pointe, brandishing rifles; Oscar Peterson, danced by guest artist Wellesley Robertson, popped up to mime playing piano while canned music streamed in, as live musicians had been dispensed with; a funky score by Antoine Bédard filling the slot.
And what of Côté here? Lurching from his last evening-length production based on the beloved novella, “Le Petit Prince” in 2016 to a non-fiction film collaboration doesn’t quite parse. His previous work, “Being and Nothingness” (2015) took up Sartre, and there at least, we were able to see a direct use of choreography to explore existentialist themes. The larger the work, the more minimal, and marginal his choreography seems to become. And I can add few words for the dancers here, who danced half-blind in the double-lights and smoke effects.
The National Ballet’s recent history of commissioning new work is a patchy one, Will Tuckett’s “Pinocchio,” Côté’s “Le Petit Prince” and now “Frame by Frame” counting among the not-quites. In June the season continues with a mixed bill featuring the crowd-pleasing “Cacti” from Alexander Ekman and James Kudelka’s “The Man in Black,” as well as Justin Peck’s 2013 work, “Paz de la Jolla,” new to the company this year. A hint of Californian sunshine might be just what the doctor ordered.