Friday, May 8, 2009

Choreographing Norman

In Montreal last night I attended lemieux.pilon 4d art’s presentation of Norman, their homage to legendary National Film Board of Canada auteur Norman McLaren, at Place des Arts’ Cinquième Salle. A collaboration with dancer/choreographer Peter Trosztmer, the piece takes as its point of departure McLaren’s lifelong love of dance, and his likening of his filmmaking process—and legendary animation techniques, in particular—to the movement associated with dance.

McLaren himself studied dance in his native Scotland, met his lifelong partner, Guy Clover, at the ballet, and in one form or another would always consider himself a choreographer for the cinema. From his earliest scratches on celluloid to his two great dance films, Pas de deux (1967) and Narcissus (1983; which I remember seeing in high school, and which if I didn’t already know it by then, surely proved to me once and for all that I was gay), McLaren was all about achieving through stop-motion and the scratching of film what Eisenstein accomplished through sped-up montage and his cutting of film. While, to be sure, there is an important acoustic element to McLaren’s films, with his scratches precisely positioned to create various rhythmic beats, and with music always integral to the reception of his images, there is perhaps no better metaphor for his oeuvre than that of a great filmic ballet, and I can think of no better tribute to his work than this stunning multi-disciplinary, multi-media, and multi-sensory work.

Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon are known for their own brilliant visual effects, their incorporation of the latest new media technologies into their mise-en-scène, and especially their use of scrimless holographic projections. In Norman the latter take two forms. First, Trosztmer, who, according to the organizing conceit of the piece, is researching McLaren’s life and work at the NFB archives, beams up for us from his cell phone various images of his interview subjects: former co-workers and collaborators of McLaren; other filmmakers and critics familiar with his work (including my friend Tom Waugh, who teaches films studies at Concordia); and so on. Impressive as this Star Trek technology is, it is Lemieux and Pilon’s magical holographic conjuring of classic imagery from McLaren’s most iconic films—both animated and live action—and Trosztmer’s equally magical interactive dancing with this imagery that really takes one’s breath away, and provides the piece with its heart and soul (see the above video excerpt for examples of both sorts of projection).

For, as much as the show relies on state-of-the-art technology to achieve its theatricality, it also provides as the ground for that theatrical expression the body of a live solo performer on stage. It is, after all, Trosztmer’s charisma as a performer, and his graceful fluidity in the languages of dance and theatre (not to mention French and English), that quite literally brings McLaren’s filmic language “alive” on stage. This is a reminder, as well, that McLaren, who could sometimes veer off into pure abstraction and get caught up in his own self-reflexive immersion in the medium, was often at his best and most affecting when he placed himself at the centre of his work. Indeed, some of my favourite moments in Norman come from Trosztmer interacting with McLaren’s own holographic image on stage, as in the brilliant choreography created to the footage from A Chairy Tale (1957), or in the very moving images taken from McLaren’s last film, a home movie of him dancing in his garden.

Thanks, Sylvain, for alerting me to the return Montreal engagement of this wonderful mixed-media show. I’ll do my best to see that it eventually finds its way to Vancouver.


1 comment:

Kathryn said...

I know it's not much good for anyone in Canada but 'Norman' is returning to Scotland in March 2010, to the Macrobert Arts Centre at Stirling University (where we have a Norman McLaren Archive). I missed it the last time round so going by your review and other reviews I've read I'm really looking forward to seeing it this time!