Shadows and Dreams: Studies in Motion: the hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge

Studies in Motion: the hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge

Electric Company Theatre at Canadian Stage, Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto

November 22 to December 18, 2021

Written by Kevin Kerr

Directed by Kim Collier

Choreographed by Crystal Pite

Performed by Andrew Wheeler, Gaelan Beatty, Julian Galipeau, Allan Morgan, Dawn Petten, Kyle Rideout, Michael Rinaldi, Juno Ruddell, Celine Stubel, Erin Wells, Jonathon Young, Frank Zotter




For anyone who has seen copies of the nineteenth-century prints of groundbreaking, startling images of men, women, and horses in stop-motion by Eadweard Muybridge, the opening sequence of Studies in Motion may feel like a revelation, as Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre takes us back in time. Inverting the history of these iconic images, this multidisciplinary play brings them back to fleshly life. Naked actors run slowly, in staggered diagonals, across a stage that has been broken into grids made of light. The opening gently and thoroughly commands the audience’s attention: each dazzling element, from the soundscape, to the precision and human vulnerability of the performers, to the breathtaking and apposite choreography and lighting: all work together, creating an evocative, integrated whole.

Moving backward and forward in time from a historical present set in the late 1880s—the action is centred during the period of Muybridge’s major, university-funded work in stop-time photography and concomitant technological, political and staff issues. The camaraderie of Muybridge’s team, and their friendship and intellectual enthusiasm, forms a warm parallel narrative. The research process is humanized, as we learn the trickiness of finding people willing to pose nude for photographs in the late nineteenth century, and how difficult it can be to pretend to be natural for the camera, as Muybridge’s subjects needed to learn to do.

The story of Muybridge’s adult life also unfolds, mainly in flashback. His autocratic character, a central focus of the narrative, turns out to be both controversial and troubled. Denied entry to the Royal Society in England because of a plagiarism cloud (whether as a result of someone having stolen Muybridge’s work, or Muybridge having borrowed someone else’s, remains murky), he nevertheless returns to the US with major university funding for his work.

In private life, Muybridge was a jealous and uxorious husband, and the eventual killer of his wife’s lover, a theatre critic.The jury considered adultery sufficient provocation, and acquitted him of murder. The killing occasions one of several deeply moving dance sequences, that support and enhance the drama: the company members, in black suits and top hats, swirl in a circle like a dark, drowning dream.

The audience desperately wants to empathize with Muybridge and his stern character, especially as he suffers in the face of his wife’s flirtatious behaviour, or later struggles to keep his work on track when funding is uncertain, but at core he seems rather unsympathetic, unlovable, and even unredeemable. Uncertain of his wife’s son’s paternity, despite proclamations by others that the baby has Muybridge’s eyes, Muybridge abandons the child to be raised by nuns, like an orphan. Of course he was a product of his times, and the importance of his research, especially in the development of cinematography, is inarguable; but despite Andrew Wheeler’s impeccable performance, it is hard to identify emotionally with Muybridge.

Each aspect of this mesmerizing production threads the story with theatrical magic. From the soundscape (composed by Patrick Pennefather), to the elegant use of trompe l’oeil scrims (creating illusions of everything from ballrooms to university foyers), to the serrated, syncopated reproduction of Muybridge’s photographs (both with physical imagination and lively gorgeousness by the performers ((choreographed by Crystal Pite)), and as projections), the mood-perfect lighting (set, lighting and video design by Robert Gardiner), the charming and luxurious Victorian costumes, to the nuanced and moving performances by each member of the company—the elements of this show collectively attain an amazing connection between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first, as well as admirable verisimilitude. Perhaps, at its centre, though, Muybridge’s life casts a sad shadow, laden and heavy with darkness.