Dance: More of That!
Clara's Trip should be Charlotte's - and the Carolinas' - new holiday tradition.
During its December 15-20 run at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, attendees of Clara’s Trip had to ford the river of people queuing for Charlotte Ballet’s performance of The Nutcracker at the Belk Theater. However, at the more intimate Booth Playhouse, Clara’s Trip played for sold out crowds ready to enjoy a fresh take on the show being performed downstairs.
There is something appropriate about Caroline Calouche’s adaptation of the classic ballet running alongside its source material. Leaders and company members from both groups have known each other for years. Dancers from both productions see each other backstage, some of them members of a time-honored Western holiday tradition, others of a Charlotte tradition only ten years old. Calouche says they cheer each other on when they pass in the hall.
It’s worth mentioning that when it was first performed this same weekend in 1892, The Nutcracker bombed. Peter Tchaikovsky’s familiar score was certainly up to snuff, but the performance did not impress. The Nutcracker we revere today was choreographed by contemporary ballet titan George Balanchine, an update from the ballet he performed in as a budding dancer. Through the 1950s and 60s, he rewrote a more expressive and expansive choreography, demanded a more bombastic orchestral interpretation, and introduced the enormous dream-tree, only the first in a procession of dazzling scenery with which we are now familiar.
Audiences attending a Balanchine Nutcracker were sure to gaze wide-eyed at the sets, swoon at the seductive “Arabian Coffee” choreography, and applaud the acumen of the dancers as they displayed the wide range of skills and tricks audiences still look forward to. But let’s be frank: By now, the Balanchine is as well known to us as family, and the opportunity for true astonishment has passed.
That’s why Charlotteans attending Clara’s Trip are in for such a treat. The format is certainly recognizable, but the story, the acting, the dance, and the acrobatic feats are fresh and surprising. When I attended, I could not help but feel the uniform grins, audible gasps, and spontaneous applause in the Booth Playhouse echoed audiences at mid-century Nutcracker productions, when no one knew what to expect.
To begin with, Clara’s Trip is fun. Opening on a party scene at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Flowers, those in attendance mingle and pantomime in a joyful spirit. The partygoers take turns showing their moves off to one another, with offerings that range from mighty partnering lifts, to the Charleston, to the Renegade TikTok dance. Malanah Hobgood and Alabi Orisadele give the greatest nod to the original ballet with flowing grace. An over-exuberant trio perform the Macarena. Ashlyn Cartini and Shaun Wilson, following several astonishing acrobatic lifts, get too drunk, argue, and dance with the wrong partners. All the while, Tchaikovsky’s classic score grounds the narrative.
Later, a klutzy injury at the party sends Sarah Harrison’s Clara to the doctor. As the attending surgeon, Caroline Calouche draws upon Charlie Chaplin physicality as she offers remedy after inappropriate remedy for what is just a sprained ankle. An oversized syringe is ultimately what sends Clara into the dream sequence we have been looking forward to.
This show also provides more interesting roles for the younger dancers, who, like with traditional productions of The Nutcracker, are students in this company’s training program. Instead of simplistic flower avatars accompanying a queen, these ensemble dancers usher in the beginning of Clara’s dream, which is really more of a nightmare. As though Calouche’s kooky doctor has divided and multiplied, the young dancers run amok in scrubs, devilish little operating room gremlins, bearing giant versions of the doctor’s tools and twisting their faces into masks of delighted malice. Being in the Nutcracker flower brigade is surely an honor for introductory level ballerinas, but this seems a sight more fun for the performers.
Clara’s gift at the Flowers’ party, a little stuffed monkey rather than a nutcracker, translates into a trio of jester monkeys on an extended trapeze, flipping and swinging on the bar as if straight out of the barrel. Recalling its Fantasia counterpart, the Coffee dance is performed by two fish characters. Savanah Wilson and Anna Fergione weave in and out of a slowly spinning double Lyra hoop with illusory rhythm over the brooding tune. Kyra Gonzalez, in a bungee harness, slingshots and soars over the other characters on stage in the best example of Calouche’s mission to hybridize contemporary dance and the circus arts. Sarah Harrison’s solo as Clara is a lyrical silks routine performed high above the stage.
In all, the skill and prowess necessary for this performance ramped up so regularly, and the occasions for applause throughout the audience came so fast and thick, that the house would have to skip over praising earlier levels of excellence just to give their hands a break.
There was no such break in the show’s finale, though. Mr. Flowers, played by Connor Dealy, spent the opening scene trying his hand at the feats his guests performed only to fail. He was cheerily inept as he tried to follow Alex Oliva after he dazzled on the Cyr wheel. However funny, this comedy was a ruse. Abbie Rooney as Mrs. Flowers, who had woven through the show from the party through the dream sequences with a parental serenity, joins Dealy on the trapeze for the most breathtaking tricks of the show. With a hard shadow doubling the formations the couple make, Rooney and Dealy flip, hold, and swing through the air with only the trapeze and each other to rely upon, and the audience could not get enough of it. Sure enough, after one of their most daring stunts, an audience member, hands cupped around his mouth, shouted through applause to the stage: “More of that!”
In December 2023, there will be more of that. This is the tenth year that Caroline Calouche & Co. have performed Clara’s Trip. Just like Balanchine’s productions of his Nutcracker, the work evolves year-to-year. What we saw this December will be refined, improved, and updated in the next. With good luck, Charlotte audiences can attend Clara’s Trip for many holiday seasons to come. Mark your calendars. I could not recommend a new holiday tradition more highly.