Review: Portraits In Motion (Harbourfront World Stage)

Volker Gerling - Portraits in Motion - photo by Franz RitschelToronto’s Harbourfront World Stage presents Portraits in Motion, a show featuring flip books

Portraits In Motion, curated as part of the Harbourfront World Stage series, is…not really theatre. It has a performative aspect to it, I suppose, and it’s interesting in it’s own way, but I feel compelled to open this review with the following above-the-folk piece of information: there is nothing performative about this presentation. The materials attached suggest that photographer Volker Gerling has invented “an entirely new form of theatre,” but I am not convinced. It seems, really, like a long version of a TED talk or an unusually good invited lecture in the Fine Arts department.

Gerling, who is German, makes flip book portraits. Flip books are an interesting form, both simple and complex, and comfortingly low-tech. In an increasingly digital/technological world, Gerling’s works span a century of innovation – he uses hand-printed black-and-white photographs to create the same effect that GIF memes and your iPhone’s LIVE photo setting now offer. In Portraits in Motion, Gerling shows his flip books using a video camera to project them onto a huge screen. He flips each of them three or four times, and periodically he pauses to tell a brief anecdote abut the circumstances under which he made the portrait. In some instances, he offers the title of the flip book, like “Woman on Rocks,” or “Old Man With Hat.”

For 90 minutes.

Really, what I want to say about Portraits In Motion is that it would have been a great 45-50 minute show. The books are beautiful, the premise is interesting; Gerling isn’t really a storyteller but he has a dry wit that got a few deep, rolling laughs out of the audience as his meaning dawned. I appreciated the artistry in the work, and I even began to find the soft, amplified thwup-thwup-thwup-thwup of the books being flipped (live, by hand, each time) sort of soothing.

Regrettably, I just found it too long. After a while the novelty of the art form wears off that’s when the flip books of buildings and intersections start and I did not find it compelling enough to justify the latter 45 minutes. If you are a tremendous photography enthusiast, or even if you have a quieter and more meditative nature, you might find this to be a more pleasing hour-and-a-half than I did. Perhaps even if I had known what to expect – essentially, a very high production value version of seeing someone’s vacation slides – I would have been in the correct frame of mind to enjoy this. But I cannot in good conscience endorse the idea that this is a new kind of theatre.


  • Portraits In Motion plays at Harbourfront Theatre (235 Queens Quay) through Saturday, April 16th
  • Performances are at 8pm. Please note that the website lists the runtime as 75 minutes without intermission, but that the actual show is about 85 minutes.
  • Tickets are $24, with $15 student tickets available
  • Tickets can be had online, by phone at 416-973-4000 or in person at 235 Queens Quay.

Photo of the artist by Franz Rietzchel