High-tech production Frame by Frame lights up National Ballet

Canadian director Robert Lepage hopes to push the boundaries of ballet for our technological era. He's teamed up with the National Ballet and NFB to present a multimedia dance production that marries ballet and abstract film animation.

New piece from Robert Lepage pays homage to animation pioneer Norman McLaren

Dancers appear in silhouette during rehearsal for the National Ballet of Canada's multimedia production Frame by Frame. (David Leclerc/National Ballet of Canada)

Director Robert Lepage first saw Norman McLaren's short animated films as a child, when they aired as part of Hockey Night in Canada. He was moved by their simplicity and emotional impact.

"There is something very pure about his vocabulary and very accessible and very universal," says Lepage. 

"I've always related to that because I am desperately looking for simple things, resources, ideas that can speak to a universal or international audience."

Lepage has returned to McLaren for his latest project Frame by Frame, teaming up with the National Ballet of Canada and the National Film Board to create a multimedia dance production that marries ballet and abstract film animation in hopes of pushing the boundaries of ballet for our technological era.

The ballet took four years to make and cost $1.4 million.

Robert Lepage, left, and Guillaume Côté rehearse in May for Frame by Frame. (Elias Djemi-Matassov/National Ballet of Canada)

When Lepage met dancer and choreographer Guillaume Côté seven years ago, the two vowed they would find a way to work together. 

Frame by Frame is the result: a collaboration that pays tribute to McLaren, the Canadian film and animation pioneer famous for his experimentation, including his  award-winning 1968 film Pas de deux.

Get a peek of a recent rehearsal, with Côté and Lepage in attendance, in this video.

Take a peek at the National Ballet's new production Frame by Frame

5 years ago
Duration 1:31
The National Ballet rehearses for the production's upcoming world premiere under the watchful eyes of Robert Lepage and Guillaume Côté.

For a true homage to the "visual poetry" of McLaren's analog storytelling techniques, Lepage says it was important for them to fully embrace the tools of the digital age. 

"Classical ballet is a wonderful craft, and I respect it a lot. It's just that it also needs to be reinvented in a certain way if we want the craft to survive," he says.

Dancer Harrison James and Côté in rehearsal for Frame by Frame. (David Leclerc/National Ballet of Canada)

Five projectors shine abstract images onto all surfaces of the stage, including the dancers. But, according to Côté, Frame by Frame puts the dancers first, not the technology.

"Everything comes from the dance and movement, and the idea of the multimedia is an enhancement of the choreography and an enhancement of the movement."

Harrison James in rehearsal. (David Leclerc/National Ballet of Canada)

Martha Schabas, ballet critic for the Globe and Mail, says it's an important way for ballet to stay relevant.

"The fact that this particular production is drawing on technology seems very much of the time. We are a technologically obsessed world," she says.

"And in a way if ballet is going to be an art form, which means that it's in a real dialogue with the 21st century, then it's going to going to need to reflect that."

Frame by Frame is on stage at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto from June 1 to 10.


Alice Hopton

National Environment and Climate Change Producer

Alice Hopton is a national Environment and Climate Change producer for CBC News.