FRAME BY FRAME chore­ographed by ñ

Guil­laume Côté (Na­tional Bal­let of Canada/Ex Machina/Na­tional Film Board of Canada). At Four Sea­sons Cen­tre (145 Queen West). Runs to June 10. From $69. na­tional.bal­let.ca. Rat­ing: nnnn Since the dawn of cin­ema, dance and film have been flirt­ing with each other. One of the great ex­per­i­menters in mar­ry­ing the two was a quiet ge­nius named Norman McLaren. Born in Scot­land in 1914, McLaren made short films for the NFB in Mon­treal for decades un­til his death in 1987. The new ful­l­length bal­let Frame By Frame ex­plores McLaren’s life and work with lov­ing re- spect and a lot of the­atri­cal sorcery.

In quick suc­ces­sion di­rec­tor Robert Lepage quotes or ex­cerpts McLaren’s great­est works, of­ten as full-size back­drops to Guil­laume Côté’s chore­og­ra­phy. Other times he plays with as­pect ra­tio, fram­ing the dancers us­ing cine­matic el­e­ments. Though much of Côté’s work seems doomed to be over­shad­owed by the ef­fects, it’s in­ven­tive and fre­quently holds its own in this tricky bal­anc­ing act of a bal­let.

In a sec­tion de­voted to McLaren’s iconic film Pas De Deux, with its ghostly black-and-white trails, dis­parate dy­namic el­e­ments blend har­mo­niously to defy time and con­text. Lepage and Côté layer dance (with Heather Og­den and Har­ri­son James in roles orig­i­nated by Mar­garet Mercier and Vin­cent War­ren) and scenes from the film with newly shot ma­te­rial that spec­u­lates on McLaren’s cre­ation process.

An­i­mated film ex­per­i­ments in see­ing mu­sic and paint­ing with light, and home-movie-style set pieces fea­tur­ing McLaren and friends, are also ad­dressed, vis­ual themes plucked from the films mashed up against snip­pets from McLaren’s pri­vate life. (The film­maker is danced through­out the bal­let with great sen­si­tiv­ity by sec­ond soloist Jack Bertin­shaw).

Some of these vignettes are more suc­cess­ful than oth­ers; the most en­ter­tain­ing oc­cur when Lepage and his team start riff­ing on McLaren’s con­cepts, spin­ning them in un­ex­pected di­rec­tions – as in the ex­quis­ite scene in McLaren’s stu­dio with its meta­mor­phos­ing draft­ing ta­ble, cur­rents of in­spi­ra­tion al­most vis­i­bly float­ing around the stage.

Like McLaren, Lepage and his cre­ative team are con­fi­dent work­ing with ev­ery­day ma­te­ri­als – mir­rors, hands and cof­fee cups, lines and num­bers – in small and de­tailed ways that il­lus­trate much big­ger ideas.

There may be some pol­ish­ing and re­fin­ing yet to come in this world pre­miere. The work could use an edit to make it flow bet­ter and run tighter than its cur­rent 130 min­utes. Four or five scenes wouldn’t be missed. And there’s so much to look at, so many ad­just­ments the eye must make mov­ing from two di­men­sions to three, real bod­ies to screen bod­ies, peer­ing through scrims or clouds of smoke – per­haps mercy could be ex­tended to the au­di­ence by tweak­ing a few of the harsher light­ing ef­fects.

It ends with the con­ven­tional closing char­ac­ter pa­rade you’d expect from a more or­di­nary bio bal­let.

Though thrilling, it can’t quite live up to some of the qui­eter, more per­fectly in­ti­mate in­ter­plays of nar­ra­tive, chore­ographed move­ment and de­sign. It’s in those mo­ments that ti­tanic talents syn­chro­nize to make real magic.

There’s lots of vis­ual magic in Na­tional Bal­let of Canada’s Frame By Frame.

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