‘Frame by Frame’ soars in National Ballet reboot

Performance inspired by legendary Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren a dazzling assault on reality.

What: Frame by Frame
Where: Four Seasons Centre, 145 Queen St. W.
When: Now, until Sun., June 11
Highlight: Opening sequence, where reality and illusion dissolve into one.
Rating: NNNNN (out of 5)
Why you should go: Sensory sensation in which the veil between reality and illusion is constantly being challenged. Magnificent in every way.

Frame by Frame is a brilliant, format-smashing, multi-disciplinary journey in which the veil between illusion and reality is constantly being tugged.

The current production is an edited remounting of Robert Lepage and Guillaume Coté’s 2018’s multimedia tribute to brilliant and under-appreciated Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren. And while I didn’t see the earlier version (which ran about 30 minutes longer and contained some deleted scenes), if the goal of the edit was to create a crisply running, fast-paced tribute to the ground-breaking filmmaker, mission accomplished.

Frame by Frame is a collection of vignettes that manages to effectively tell McLaren’s life story, share some of his philosophical insights and create powerful, compelling art that utilizes many disciplines along the way.

The opening sequence begins with life-sized, black-and-white images of dancers from an early McLaren film (All Nighter) projected on a massive screen; real dancers eventually emerge from the pattern, leaving the audience wrestling with whether they are viewing a film or human form — it’s an untethering of reality that will last all evening.

As crisp segments of McLaren’s films are projected larger than I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing them, accompanied by a live orchestra, I confess that a program of just McLaren’s work in this setting would more than satisfy.

This presents a challenge in those moments when Jack Bertinshaw, who dances as McLaren, is left to perform solo on stage and without the added accompaniment of the film’s images or other members of the corps.

McLaren’s work is fundamentally unobtrusive. A literal narrative is rare; often, he traded in images and shapes, sometimes attempting to depict “what sound looks like.” He sometimes simply scratched his images onto the film. McLaren spent so much of his work celebrating form, shape and movement that its presentation in conjunction with dance makes sense — and this performance more than proves it.

The dance sequences sometimes advance the biographical narrative and we see dull drafting tables in McLaren’s National Film Board (NFB) “office” swept up by the dancers to become twirling props.

Other times, the corps recreates or is inspired by scenes from McLaren’s films, including a remarkable riff on his legendary pro-peace Oscar-winning flick Neighbours, where the dancers masterfully perform the lawn chair spat that descends into brutal violence as the film projects above them.

McLaren’s stark and beautiful ballet short Pas de Deux was, in some ways, the climax of his career and forms a climax of Frame by Frame, with Genevieve Penn Nabity and Harrison James masterfully performing the piece to close the opening night.

Frame by Frame is not just a celebration of an artist and arts; it celebrates public art. Lepage and Coté could not have created this massive project without funding from a variety of levels of government. And McLaren did almost all of his work as a government-funded employee of the NFB. I wonder how many in the well-healed crowd enjoying opening night accept the importance of using tax dollars to create the context where the works of artists similar to and inspired by McLaren, Lepage and Coté can be created. It’s important to look at the work of McLaren as part of generations-long, government support for the arts, something that is constantly under attack.

Frame by Frame is not just a magnificent celebration of the art of Norman McLaren — it’s a celebration of public art.