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Lemieux Pilon 4D, Dancing with Norman McLaren

Films by Norman McLaren:

Dots (1940)

Hen Hop (1942)

Begone dull care (1949)

Neighbours (1952)

Blinkity Blank (1955)

A Chairy Tale (1957)

Le Merle (1959)

Opening Speech (1960)

Lignes verticales (1960)

Lignes horizontales (1962)

Canon (1964)

Mosaic (1965)

Pas de deux (1968)

Spheres (1969)

Dancing with Twice Himself

Synchromy (1971)

Narcissus (1983)
A few years ago, Terry Gilliam picked the ten best animated films in history, which included some excellent examples by early experimenters with animation. Last year, we mentioned one of Gilliam's choices, the nightmarish Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer, but one of the filmmakers who should be on that list, but wasn't, is Norman McLaren. The Canadian animator is likely more familiar to our friends north of the border, many of whom apparently grew up watching his short films featured between programming on Canadian television. He was a pioneer in several techniques, including stop-motion animation, drawing and etching directly on the film, and attempts to synchronize sound and visual motion, and his experimental and wide-ranging style took in abstract art, ballet and modern dance, and all kinds of music, from Bach to Oscar Peterson.

A sort of danced documentary about McLaren, called Norman, is playing at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater this weekend, a collaboration between the Montreal-based multimedia performance group Lemieux Pilon 4D Art and dancer-choreographer Peter Trosztmer. The idea is fairly high-tech, in that it combines the live movements and narration of Trosztmer with projected images -- moving and, at times, seemingly three-dimensional -- of McLaren's most famous films, including clips of McLaren himself, and friends and collaborators sharing memories of McLaren. The ingenious part of this concept is that Trosztmer can insert himself into iconic scenes from the films (choreography shared with Thea Patterson, lighting by Alain Lortie, sound by Michael Smith), knocking around the dots and lines of the abstract art pieces, dancing with a chair in parallel to McLaren's in A Chairy Tale, sitting next to video projections on a bench. Unfortunately, the problem with the concept is that Trosztmer kept getting in the way of all of these brilliant animations by Norman McLaren. For free, one can watch the selection of McLaren films listed at right instead, thanks to the wonders of YouTube.

The appeal of the show is probably not enough of a draw for anyone other than hardcore McLaren or animated film nuts -- there are a few clips from unfinished McLaren projects even most McLaren aficionados are unlikely to have seen, along with excerpts of almost all of the famous shorts -- and those with a general interest in the technical possibilities of a dancer interacting with video projected on scrims (many of the effects are pretty cool, but like most experiments in 3D cinema these days, such as the pedestrian Avatar, technology can be tedious without something more). It was a mistake to have Trosztmer narrate with a body mike: the story, of a man investigating McLaren at the National Film Board of Canada, is simple enough to be told by gesture and movement only, which is the whole point of dance, after all. No narrative clarity is gained by the colloquial remarks made by Trosztmer, and the heavy breathing and grunting made by a dancer in motion is something that should not be broadcast to the audience. Overall, however, the work has an earnestness and tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, that can suddenly become sharp-edged, recalling the best qualities of the work it honors.

This performance will be repeated this evening at 7:30 pm, in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.

Spheres, film by N. McLaren (Music: J. S. Bach, Prelude and Fugue No. 22
in B-Flat Minor, BWV 867, Glenn Gould, piano)

Nelson Pressley, Lemieux Pilon 4D Art pays tribute to filmmaker Norman McLaren at Kennedy Center (Washington Post, October 7)

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