The thought of a telling a story without words never fazed Charlie Chaplin, creator of some of the most indelible silent films ever made. But can his own complex life story be related in just over two hours, in dance? I went to Bratislava to find out. Yes, really.
Tulák Chaplin (the name means “Chaplin, the Tramp” in Slovakian) is a bio-ballet for the slapstick star-director, which premiered at the Slovak National Theatre last March – that’s in beautiful Bratislava, Slovakia. It’s part of the celebrations for the 130th anniversary of Chaplin’s birth. The choreography is by the Brazilian Daniel De Andrade, whom you may know from his work with the Northern Ballet, and the score is by the estimable Carl Davis, whose work you certainly do know if you are a regular reader of this blog – he has written some of the most iconic orchestral scores for silent film, not least of which is his epic composition for Napoléon. The two collaborated once before on a commission for the same theatre – that time it was a portrait of Nijinsky, another great physical artist of the 20th century.
Who finer a subject than Chaplin for this treatment? A visually expressive performer, graceful on screen, and with an off-screen biography that reads like a rags-to-riches fantasy. The Victorian urchin who demonstrates a flair for entertaining a crowd, which leads to fledgling stage career in the British music halls and then the American tour that brings him to the attention of Hollywood. Then in California he finds his calling, reaches undreamed-of greatness in the perfection of his art as an icon to millions, all the while encoding something of his tough-luck years in his comedy. There’s scandal too, and then ultimately exile and familial bliss in Switzerland. He returns to Hollywood to be acclaimed and then by all accounts dies happy in the bosom of his family.
This is a ballet in two acts, comprising short scenes from an oft-told life. Three different dancers play Charlie at various ages, with Konstantin Korotkov brilliantly embodying the adult Chaplin for the bulk of the show. Intertitles and film screens suspended mid-air add historical context, dates and introduce new characters or movies. The subtly brilliant ways that the choreography combines slapstick and ballet are a joy throughout the performance and as if to show us his workings, Korotkov gave a more traditional Chaplin impersonation at the curtain call – waggling nose, wobbling cane, big shoes and all. More to the point, the ballet shows us the real-life inspiration for Chaplin’s stage moves – the loping steps of his father coming home drunk are recycled in the young Chaplin’s own stage-drunk act. Art imitating life, but replaying tragedy as comedy.
Chaplin’s transformation into the Tramp makes for a rousing close to Act One and you’ll see a few of the star’s greatest hits here. There’s a joyous re-enactment of a particularly good gag from Easy Street, a few steps that recall the pastoral dance scene in Sunnyside, and a snippet of the angel-ballet from The Kid, as well as favourite moments from The Gold Rush, Modern Times and The Great Dictator – not just the globe dance, but the final speech itself. Throughout the show, appearances from a grey-faced gaggle of Keystone Kops added an injection of the kind of physical humour that looks simple but really isn’t. Honestly, I can’t tell you enough how much I enjoyed those Keystone Kops. All ballets should have a comic chorus. Preferably of Keystone Kops.
You might expect the true-life scenes to have the greatest power, though, and some of the biographical scenes were especially effective. Silvia Nádjená touched the heartstrings as the poor tormented Hannah Chaplin, both in a scene of the family’s home life but even more so in a split-stage treatment of her stint in a (very expressionist) mental asylum, spliced with Charlie and Syd in the workhouse. The staging of Charlie’s music hall debut in Aldershot was particularly sharp, with a boisterous crowd and another moving turn from Nádjená as the stage-fright-stricken Hannah.
Elsewhere, Tulák Chaplin offered thrilling, stage-filling Hollywood spectacles. The rendering of a 1920s Hollywood party (Charleston, illicit liquor, the accidental death of Virginia Rappé and all) was an uptempo if somewhat anachronistic spectacle, and a “ballet mecanique” based on Modern Times had an added impact given this country’s Communist history. There’s one scene I would particularly like to see again – the opening out of the famous Bread Roll Ballet from The Gold Rush mixed film, group dance and the celebrated fork solo brilliantly.
Those recreations of Chaplin’s most famous film moments have it easier than the rest of the material. This is not an easy story to tell, however you do it. A friend expressed a certain amount of alarm to me when I told him what I was going to see. And it’s true, there are some unsavoury elements to this life story.
In true Chaplin-style, the ballet uses charm and humour to breeze past stickier moments. The ballet is subtitled “Homage to the prodigy” and it tells his story, his way, and with deference to his talent at all times. That said, viewers can add their own internal commentary to any of the on-stage action (I would have loved to see Mabel Normand behind the camera at least once), and at our performance the impact of one scene in which Chaplin is hounded in court by various harpie-like women was slightly undercut by a slight technical malfunction with one of the film screens. Perhaps a touch of poetic justice – for those who seek it.
There’s plenty to say about Chaplin, and to not say, as this ballet proves time and again – his pantomimic skill transfers perfectly to dance. Not for nothing did Louise Brooks say she learned to act by watching Martha Graham dance but she learned to dance by watching Charlie Chaplin act.
Carried along by Davis’s rich, buoyant and allusive score, this show is clearly a tribute not to the real man but instead to the screen icon, who even at the height of his fame was personified by the Little Tramp himself, an underdog whose tribulations inspired millions. That’s the kind of contradiction at the heart of all great star personas, after all. As Davis says:
“Chaplin was a film-maker in complete control of his art: conceiving, scripting, acting, directing, producing, editing and, strikingly, creating his own musical scores. His stimulus, as it is with all clowns, was the creation of a character – amusing, moving, whose fate constantly intrigues us. Whereas Buster Keaton was a frozen-faced stoic and Harold Lloyd had his empty-framed glasses, Chaplin had his “little tramp”, the ups-and-downs (mostly downs) of whose existence shaped a story of human resilience.”
By finding the links between biography and art, Tulák Chaplin illustrated the impact of Chaplin the legend, which is so hard to split away from his life. The man who gave us the most distinctive walk in film history, the globe dance in The Great Dictator, and can even make bread rolls plié, was born to be balletified.
- Tulák Chaplin/Chaplin, the Tramp – Homage to the Prodigy was produced in collaboration with Roy Export S.A.S., Charlie Chaplin™ © Bubbles Incorporated S.A.
- Chaplin, the Tramp – Homage to the Prodigy will be performed again on 23 May and 26 June this year. To book and for more information, click here.
- Find out more about Carl Davis here at the Carl Davis Collection website.
- Find out where to see Chaplin’s films and learn more about his life and legacy, as well as the 130th anniversary celebrations at the Charlie Chaplin website.
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