Famous Cavalier Vaslav Nijinsky of the Ballet Russes acknowledged to Charlie Chaplin in 1916, “Your comedy is balletique, you are a dancer” (Kamin 100). Despite his lack of formal dance training, famous silent film actor, Charlie Chaplin, fooled his viewers into believing he was one of history’s greatest dancers with his articulated technique and dynamic quality of movement. Charlie Chaplin’s signature stylistic movement may be easily viewed as a modern dancer’s choreographic voice. As comedian W. C. Fields commented, “He’s the best ballet dancer that ever lived, and if I get a good chance I’ll kill him with my bare hands” (Schilling). Although Chaplin never marketed himself as a dancer, he amazed audiences with his interesting movements and balletic grace. Throughout Charlie Chaplin’s films, dance appears in multiple forms to fit the context of the film and serve different storytelling roles.
Chaplin’s first experiences in dance stemmed from his childhood at music halls in England. Charlie Chaplin spent much of his childhood in a performance setting, watching his parents sing at various music halls (Chaplin & Music). “In 1898, aged 9, Charlie began his own career in English music hall, with a troupe of juvenile clog dancers, ‘The Eight Lancashire Lads’” (Chaplin & Music). From there Chaplin became a vocalist, performing in similar venues to the ones he grew up in (Chaplin & Music). From his unique experience in live music halls, Chaplin learned the art of presentation, a quality that poured into the majority of his dance skits that would appear in his later films. For example, live performance shows its influence in Chaplin’s film Modern Times, for Chaplin often creates a presentational energy, breaking the fourth wall, staring into the camera, and utilizing hand movements that gesture towards the camera and the viewing audience rather than the other actors on set (Chaplin 1:20:32). In the same way, Chaplin also completely turns to the audience in Monsieur Verdoux when he literally speaks his planned attack dialogue for the sole purpose of only the audience to hear (Chaplin 57:08). By turning his attention towards the audience, Chaplin comes across as amiable and friendly, an aspect often neglected by other filmmakers. After being exposed to live performance in his childhood, Charlie Chaplin’s love of dance continued due to the fact that like a dancer, Chaplin was innately drawn to dance because of its multi-faceted use of movement; he was “drawn to movement for movement’s sake” (Fawell 208). Chaplin believed that regular “normal-people” movement was not enough to express the feelings in his films; he needed movement beyond the norm, thus leading to dance (Fawell 208). In turn, Chaplin incorporated dance into his films multiple ways, but his dances usually occurred in two forms, either “overt dances” which were obvious dances included in the film and “non sequitar dances” which were random outbursts of movement adding to the plotline (Fawell 210, 212). In his films, the audience views just how Chaplin took movement to the next level, often to the point where it intersected qualities with dance. In many of his films he fell more dramatically than the normal person, walked with his feet turned outward in a ballet first position, and used his hips lavishly. Chaplin appreciated and employed the many qualities of dance, such as utilizing the magic of dancers in that he was able to, like a dancer, manipulate the audience’s perceptions of physics and the world (Kamin 101). He is also like a dancer in that he consistently pushed the physical limits of physics and the human body, balancing off of a vertical center, spinning multiple times, and swaying his body in a side to side fashion.
One of Charlie Chaplin’s best examples of his quirky dance style being integrated into his film work in a non sequitar way appears in his movie City Lights. Throughout this film, Chaplin’s dancing takes on multiple personas to recall the plot of the film. For instance, when Chaplin is displaying his character as an overly intoxicated man at a fancy dinner, he swings his pelvis in multiple directions, away from the verticality of his feet (Chaplin). These drastic alignment changes bring Chaplin’s character’s weight off of his center, thus conveying stumbling drunkenness. In this same scene, Chaplin is also seen sauntering his way around the dance floor in out of control pirouettes and landing in a contact improvisation trust fall supported by his new, rich friend (Chaplin 26:47). However, unlike the other dancers at the party, Chaplin maintains a rigidly erect posture as he spins the other party goers in circles. This static posture creates an awkward quality, further adding to Chaplin’s display of drunkenness and the idea that his derelict character is gawky and a misfit in this crowd of wealthy patrons. In addition to drunken acts, Charlie Chaplin also utilizes dance later in the film to create a boxing scene. The movements of Chaplin, the other boxer, and the referee seem to resemble changing choreographed formations as they gracefully waltz around each other and keep perfect distance between one another (Chaplin 1:04:35). Chaplin mirrors the movements of the other boxer, a technique utilized in dance choreography, creating a pleasing symmetrical view (Chaplin 1:04:50). Chaplin and the other boxer appear to be performing a series of chasses, side stepping glides, that keep them moving in horizontal planes near each other (Chaplin1:04:40). This section is of course complemented by beautiful, fluttering classical movement reminiscent of music used for classical ballet variations, further adding to the dance quality of the section (Chaplin 1:04:35). This scene also displays some aspects of modern dance contact improvisation as Chaplin and the other boxer perform weight sharing exercises, such as the other boxer levering Chaplin up onto his back, and then Chaplin continuously placing body weight on and through the shoulders of the other boxer so that he descends in a downward plane (Chaplin 1:05:05). Altogether, these interesting and creative uses of dance technique in City Lights allow the film to convey wildly different ideas, from drunkenness to boxing via the storytelling movements of the body.
In Charlie Chaplin’s film One A.M., Chaplin plays a wealthy, but incredulously intoxicated man coming home after drinking and simply trying to get up the stairs and go to bed. In this skit, Chaplin utilizes similar dance techniques from that of City Lights to convey the off balanced, turbulent nature of drunkenness. For instance, as Chaplin first enters his household, he continuously tumbles and falls all over the foyer of his house, slipping on carpets and furniture (Chaplin 3:36). One of the most difficult movements of modern dance is learning how to fall genuinely yet safely. Chaplin repeatedly executes the perfect modern dance fall over and over, displacing his weight and gracefully descending to the floor (Chaplin 4:37). In addition to falling, Chaplin showcases the modern dance technique of shifting one’s weight off center and releasing the support of different limbs and body structures to create dynamic movements in various planes of space; his point in using this technique, however, is less about stylization and more about creating a belligerently drunk character (Chaplin 4:24). He also includes the modern step of a hinge when he leans his pelvis forward and ascends onto the balls of his feet after being frightened by his animal skin carpet (Chaplin 5:50). In One A.M., Charlie Chaplin also executes impressive dancer footwork, displaying steps similar to the pas de bouree, a four step sequence from ballet technique, as he quickly steps behind himself and weaves his feet around one another (Chaplin 8:38). Again, Chaplin uses the storytelling nature of dance to create an interesting and believable character in One A.M.
In Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times, a movie depicting two young adults on the run from the cops, constantly struggling with work and poverty in the 1930s, Chaplin creates another dynamic character, utilizing distinct dance styles. Chaplin was inspired by the rhythmic nature of occupations in the industrial age and thus turned his gear wrenching job in the film into a dance of repetition, a series of ordered upper body jerks and full body swivels (Chaplin 5:38, Fawell 214). As a factory worker in the film, Chaplin exerts eccentric and effervescent dancing to convey a nervous breakdown from overwork (Chaplin 17:26). Chaplin dances an airy set of petite allegro type jumps (small ballet jumps), skips, and steps in a ballet releve (balancing high on the balls of one’s feet) to bring himself into a higher verticality, thus metaphorically conveying highness, a lack of being grounded, and insanity (Chaplin 17:26). Through this ballet turned factory scene, Chaplin is showcasing his ideas on converting simple everyday movements into choreography, highlighting the rhythm and dance that shows up in our everyday lives. In a later scene, as the night watchman at a department store, Chaplin ties dance and skating into a comical gag when he and the leading lady find themselves in the store’s toy department (Chaplin 47:55). Wielding a pair of skates on his feet, Chaplin heightens the amusement of this scene by layering impressive dance movements on top of his rollerblading. He performs various movements with a dance flair, such as tilting his torso in various directions and performing grande battments, balletic high kicks (Chaplin 48:05). He also sails away, balancing on one leg whilst displaying a lifted, angled leg reminiscent of a ballet attitude position (Chaplin 50:00). By displaying these movements, Chaplin conveys a sense of danger and risk contrasted with grace and ease, themes often brought up within dance choreography. In the singing cafe scene, Chaplin starts off a dance sequence with a few Frank Sinatra-like jazz moves such as slides, heel-toe steps, and chugs (Chaplin 1:19:48). Chaplin’s character also incorporates a wide variety of pantomime dancing to attempt to tell a song story he has forgotten the words to (Chaplin 1:20:32). Often in classical romantic ballets, the same parallel exists where ballerinas and cavaliers pantomime and gesture with their upper bodies in order to tell stories within the ballets. In fact, in previous forms of ballet, “choreographers adopted the mime of the commedia actors—who, since they wore masks, couldn’t talk—to express the things that the dancers, who were also nonspeaking performers, couldn’t say” (Ballet Pantomime). Thus, Chaplin is mimicking the creative tool used by dancers that narrates stories when words are unavailable. In fact, Chaplin even adopts the hand-circling-face ballet gesture meaning beautiful to symbolize a beautiful woman in his story (Chaplin 1:20:37). The use of pantomime in dance and acting allows dancers to deepen their character by creating an over exaggerated but universally understood body language (Ballet Pantomime). Like a dancer, Chaplin also responds to the music very easily and logically, creating his pantomime in a musical fashion, alluding to his ability to create a “rhythmical and balletic character” (Chaplin & Music). In utilizing pantomime gestures, Chaplin is able to render a story of love, lust, distaste, and comedy. Once again, Charlie Chaplin acts as a dancer in order to display a multi-faceted story without the luxury of dialogue.
In one of Charlie Chaplin’s later films, The Great Dictator Chaplin uses dance as a form of morbid mockery, taking on a much larger social commentary with his employment of dance like movement. In the film, the globe scene where the dictator, Adenoid Hynkel (played by Charlie Chaplin) precariously plays with a replica of the world bears the most resemblance to dance vocabulary. The dance begins with Chaplin sailing into the air in a spectacular leap, possibly resembling the leap to power his character anticipates (Chaplin 00:56). The rest of the dance exudes more of a post-modern flair of dancing, with Chaplin experimenting bouncing the balloon off of different body parts (Chaplin 2:08). The great dictator even hovers over the globe balloon in a sadist, power hungry way, a move that bears resemblance to full body contractions in modern dance (Chaplin 2:20). The whole dance set with the globe bears even more evidence that it is full of dance, for it alludes and mocks burlesque dancer, Sally Rand’s Bubble Dance. In Rand’s piece, she lightly catches her balloon in the palm of her hand, contracts her upper body over the ball, and even lays on her back and kicks balloon, all movements that Chaplin performs in the globe dance (Rand). However, unlike Chaplin, Sally Rand’s dance exudes a sensual quality that Chaplin refutes with an overly dramatic haughty quality. The overall quality of the entire balloon dance is pretentious, lofty movement, most likely used to create Adenoid Hynkel as a self righteous, rapacious entity (Chaplin). Like dance, this movement variation wields the ability to bring up social issues through movement, warning people of the rise of the Nazis and power hungry leaders who desire to take over our free world. Just like dance, the lesson is more accessible to the greater population than spoken word, for it speaks the universal language of the body and thus is able to inform more people on the possible dangers facing society.
In addition to the more obvious dance breaks in Charlie Chaplin’s films, Chaplin included less overt, small dance qualities in many of his films. In all of of Chaplin’s work, one of the more obvious dance influences is in Charlie Chaplin’s famous pigeon-toed walk. Dancers turn out their legs from the hip-socket, creating a splayed angle in the legs, and consequentially the toes to point out in two opposite directions. This technique of turn-out in the legs is one of the sole foundations of ballet technique, so Chaplin mimicking this technique further supports the dance influence in his overall quirky character. Like a dancer, Chaplin also had a specific body awareness in everything he did. For example, in Chaplin’s 1947 film, Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin meticulously and assuredly sorts out the different poison bottles in the kitchen, crossing his hands over each other in an obviously choreographed way (Chaplin 1:01:17). This scene develops Charlie Chaplin’s acute proprioception, the ability to sense one’s body position and self in relation to space. Dancers rely on full body awareness in order to gracefully make their way through space; thus, Chaplin’s gifted acknowledgement of space brings him closer to the dance realm. In the same way, Chaplin also exudes the dancer quality of being able to beautifully take up the whole breadth of spaces with movement. For instance, in Modern Times, Chaplin manages to literally skate across the entire set with ease, filling the space with the flow of movement (Chaplin 48:05). Likewise, in City Lights, Chaplin coordinates the boxer, referee, and himself with such drastic and exuberant movement that they also fill the entire atmosphere with motion (Chaplin 1:04:35). Chaplin also exudes the balletic trait of dynamicity in his movements; he moves on different levels, with different forces, and with changing qualities to express the different type of character or situation he is attempting to portray. In One A.M., for example, one moment Chaplin is quickly dizzily waltzing around himself and falling all over the film, and the next moment he is splayed out on the floor, moving at an aggressively slow speed (Chaplin 4:24). These contrasting conditions highlight changes in mood of the film and appeal to the viewers’ desire for a constantly changing film. Chaplin and dancers utilize ever-changing qualities within performance in order to keep the audience entertained and to mimic changes in emotion or situation. Though not always obvious to the untrained viewer, Charlie Chaplin combines many imperative elements of dance in his films to create beautiful movement and further his plotlines.
Like silent films, dance is an art form that is expressed solely without spoken word. Thus, the two art forms must rely on performance aspects, body language, and creativity in order to convey a story to an audience. Though dialogue adds beauty and expression to our world, some emotions are so complex that they can only be expressed through movement. Movement and ultimately dance are able to bring out those subtleties in emotion that speech will never be able to fully explain. For this reason, Charlie Chaplin’s ability to incorporate dance into his silent film work furthered his abilities as an actor and allowed him to tell his stories in an interesting and frankly beautiful way.
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