There are times when the word "choreographer" seems unduly highfalutin and such early Hollywood credits as "dance director" or even "dance arranger" prove more appropriate. Roland Petit's 90-minute "Chaplin Dances," performed by six members of the National Ballet of Marseille to taped accompaniment at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, is such an occasion: a disarmingly small-scale personal tribute to a comic genius of silent films that Petit arranged eight years ago for his own resident comic genius, Italian character dancer Luigi Bonino.
The opening sequence offers both a eulogy for Chaplin and the transformation of Bonino into the Little Tramp. And after that come dozens of vignettes evoking such films as "The Gold Rush," "The Kid" and "City Lights," put together with an emphasis on pantomime and character-dancing. Petit assumes we know the films as well as he does, so doesn't summarize them so much as provide Bonino with showcase opportunities across a spectrum of Chaplinesque moods.
Images of classical ballet turn up periodically, but mostly for parody, despite the presence of one of the decade's reigning ballerinas, the Kirov's exquisite Altynai Asylmuratova. The lone woman in the ballet--though some of the men are occasionally drafted as drag surrogates--she wears costumes of pink and rose and flaming crimson in an otherwise black-and-white world that designer Luisa Spinatelli edges in film frames. And she also helps sustain the intriguing sense of double-vision that makes the work more than just a pastiche.
Dancing to Chaplin's "Smile," for instance, Asylmuratova wears a gauzy Romantic tutu and lampoons the illusion of magical weightlessness in 19th century ballet by floating above the stage for minutes at a time--hoisted by a nearly invisible partner dressed all in black who does much of his lifting from under her skirt. Very funny, of course, but Petit also manages to reinforce the illusion he's mocking by casting a ballerina eminently capable of magical weightlessness on her own. Spanish principal Maria Gimenez replaces Asylmuratova at the two matinees this weekend, so the audience will have a chance to see whether another dancer can simultaneously generate laughs and sighs as splendidly as this Russian icon.
The same split response occurs whenever Petit sets farcical action to imposing music by J.S. Bach: The juxtaposition confers a strange weight and timelessness to the knockabout comedy, almost as if we were looking back on Western culture from thousands of years in the future, with Chaplin and Bach the only artifacts still intact or worth remembering. Petit has used this kind of radical juxtaposition before--in his classic 1946 dance drama "Le Jeune Homme et la Mort," for example--and it keeps "Chaplin Dances" multidimensional, as opposed to the silly or sentimental thinness of the work when he chooses jaunty tunes by Fiorenzo Carpi or film score by Chaplin himself.
In one sequence, music by Bach supports one of the few dead-serious statements that Petit makes: Bonino as Chaplin emulating and embracing dancers impersonating modernist pioneer Isadora Duncan, ballet legend Vaslav Nijinsky, mime virtuoso Marcel Marceau and 19th century commedia dell'arte master Jean-Gaspard Debureau. They all wave at us as the lights fade--innovators who created indelible images and together form a glorious legacy that we're welcome to share.
And, at the end, just before Bonino shuffles down a long, long road toward celluloid heaven, we see the whole cast in mustaches, baggy suits and bowler hats: the Little Tramp as a shared embodiment of indomitable human eccentricity, sweetness and the joy of life.
"Chaplin Dances" is no masterpiece. And it's too mime-driven much of the time to be even called choreography. But as a love letter to Chaplin, Bonino, Asylmuratova and any artist with a unique gift, it reminds us why we're in the audience and exactly what a great performer is supposed to do.
Also featuring Jean-Charles Verchere, Thierry Hauswald, Thierry Monzo and David Vincendeau, "Chaplin Dances" is one of the last Petit works to be danced by National Ballet of Marseille. The 26-year relationship between the choreographer and the company ended this spring, although the ensemble will continue touring with his dances as planned through the summer. Paris Opera Ballet principal Marie-Claude Pietragalla is the new artistic director, and the 74-year-old Petit is reportedly planning to start over in an as-yet unannounced new location.
"Chaplin Dances," National Ballet of Marseille, tonight through Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m. Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $10-$49. (714) 740-7878.