Comic W.C. Fields once said of Charlie Chaplin: “He’s the best ballet dancer that ever lived, and if I get a good chance I’ll kill him with my bare hands.” Fields, who started his career as a vaudeville juggler, knew something about movement. He was also, perhaps only half-jokingly, envious of Chaplin’s enormous worldwide popularity.
Fields was not the only contemporary to compare Chaplin with a dancer, as the quotes from the famous that begin Masayuki Suo’s excellent, if unorthodox, documentary “Dancing Chaplin” make clear. And it wasn’t only for his endlessly revived dance of the bread rolls in “The Gold Rush” (which Suo obligingly shows in its entirety): Chaplin’s Tramp, starting with his oft-imitated waddle walk, brought a dancerly precision, grace and panache to a style of comedy — silent-era slapstick once better known for its kicks in the pants and pies to the face.
Roland Petit’s 1991 ballet “Chaplin Dances,” which forms the core of the documentary, pays tribute to this side of Chaplin’s art, but it is less an imitation than balletic extension, in which everyone from prancing cops to the urchin from “The Kid” (played in the film by Suo’s wife, ballerina Tamiyo Kusakari) embody the Chaplin style and spirit. The heart of the production, however, is the Tramp, whom Italian dancer Luigi Bonino portrayed more than 170 times before reprising the role for Suo’s cameras.
The first half of the film captures everything from the 10 days of rehearsal for the performance to Suo’s at times testy interactions with the sagely looking, smilingly firm Petit, who rejects the director’s proposal to shoot a portion of the ballet in a park (though the quietly persistent Suo finally gets his way).
Suo built his reputation with a series of brilliant fish-out-of-water comedies, starting with “Fancy Dance” (1989), whose punk-rocker hero trains as a Buddhist monk, and culminating with “Shall We Dansu?” (“Shall We Dance?,” 1995), in which a shy, married salaryman (Koji Yakusho) takes up ballroom dancing — and becomes dangerously infatuated with his leggy, regally lovely instructor (Kusakari, who married Suo after the film wrapped). A hit both domestically and abroad, “Shall We Dance?” kidded the loners, losers and outright eccentrics who took up the tango as a hobby, but it also celebrated dance with exuberance and affection.
In the documentary, Suo is only an occasional presence on camera, but behind it, as well as in the editing room, The shows he still has a sharp eye for the revelatory look or exchange, while making the usually tedious process of rehearsing look fascinating and even inspiring.
For me, most of the inspiration came from Bonino, 60 at the time the film was made, but as vivacious, energetic and flexible as a man decades younger. He is also a masterful instructor, gently working with a nervous Kusakari as she moves through her intricate steps, while whipping the young male dancers through their paces like a no-nonsense soccer coach.
Talking to Suo about his own role, Bonino admits to an initial dread of matching himself against Chaplin (“I could watch none of the films,” he confesses) and asserts that, though the Tramp is his inspiration, the interpretation is strictly his own.
By the time the performance segment started, presenting 13 scenes from the ballet, I found myself rooting for Bonino, Kusakari and other dancers whose dedication and pain I had just witnessed (which was Suo’s intention, though it compromised my objectivity as a dance critic).
Also, instead of the now-common strategy of filming dance with zooming cameras and five-second cuts, Suo takes a relatively straightforward, restrained approach, more like NHK than MTV. At the same time, by occasionally moving the show into the open air, he not only breaks the visual monotony of the typical performance film but also reminds us that Chaplin shot some of his funniest bits with little more than a park, a cop and a pretty girl. Suo was right, in other words, and Petit was wrong.
Still, by showing only the highlights of the ballet, with its dances derived from famous Chaplin flicks, the film feels episodic. And while individual segments stand out e_SEmD Bonino’s comically transcendent interpretation of the bread roll dance is particularly good e_SEmD the cumulative emotional impact of seeing the whole performance from beginning to end (preferably from the second row) is missing.
But as an inside look at the creative process of dance, “Dancing Chaplin” is unmatched. And it made me want to not only revisit Chaplin, but go to the gym. I’m way too late to bend like Bonino, but to keep moving, as he so vividly proves, is to stay young. With or without the mustache and bowler.