Japanese director Masayuki Suo, whose “Shall We Dance?” went boffo globally in 1997, tries out some new steps in hybrid docu/performance film “Dancing Chaplin,” spotlighting a ballet inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” persona. Featuring Suo’s dancer-actress wife, Tamiyo Kusakari, and Italian ballet star Luigi Bonino, pic puts the creative process under the microscope, then provides a truncated version of the bewitching results. Release strategy is currently undetermined, but the subject’s universal appeal means this effort could work as a tube special or as a theatrical feature. Either way, dance fans will pirouette for joy.
Through his wife’s career as a ballerina, helmer Suo becomes involved in a project to reimagine French choreographer Roland Petit’s 1991 ballet “Chaplin Dances” as a film. Starting out as a behind-the-scenes docu in a Tokyo dance studio, Suo’s film finds its structure in this first half by focusing on Bonino as he guides Kusakari through a difficult maneuver, capturing the physical precision of the ballet’s complex choreography.
Pic also features participant interviews and footage of the artists’ creative negotiations, most conducted through an interpreter, as they try to mold the original project into a new form. Helmer is also an on-camera participant in these discussions; Suo exercises restraint as the strong-willed Petit threatens to leave the project if the director proceeds with plans to film a dance sequence in a public park. The action moves to Tokyo’s Toho studios (both the antique No. 5 and the state-of-the-art No. 10) as the finished product takes shape.
Second half is a one-act, 13-scene distillation of the original dance production’s two-act, 20-scene event. This is where non-dance fans may drift off, but pic satisfies with a substantial serving of the production the audience has watched develop. Though it’s a stagebound affair, the result reflects a filmmaker’s sensibility (and the gently determined Suo does manage to get his park dance into the mix).
Smart inserts and varied camera angles make “Dancing Chaplin” considerably more satisfying than most theater-performance films. Sixty-year-old Bonino is magical as Chaplin, portraying the silent screen star with consummate skill. Though there’s no doubting the aging Bonino’s physical prowess, the dance sequences also demonstrate a tangible difference between stage and screen performers; Kusakari may have more stage than film experience on her resume, but she has something her fellow dancers don’t have: a relationship with the camera. Unintimidated by its dead, staring eye, she connects with the imagined audience that will see the film in a way her co-stars — even the talented Bonino — does not.
Helmer’s composing cousin Yoshikazu Suo offers a simple yet enchanting piece to underscore the pic’s credits and incidental moments. The ballet is performed to the music of J.S Bach, Fiorenzo Capri and, of course, Chaplin’s own compositions, including the poignant and heartbreaking “Smile.”
Docu section is captured on multiple unobtrusive HD cameras, while the performance component employs 35mm lensing. Package is neatly edited by tube helmer Ryuta Ogata.