Although Caroline Calouche’s Clara’s Trip has become a Yuletide fixture at Booth Playhouse since 2012, often playing while Charlotte Ballet’s more traditional Nutcracker runs down below at Belk Theater, the cirque and aerial variant on Tchaikovsky’s actually began a year earlier at Halton Theater. Conceived as an anti-Nutcracker or an antidote for Nut haters, the Calouche & Co. has always figured to be a better fit at the contemporary Booth than at the neo-classical Halton.
Yet a curious thing has happened between Clara’s first trip at the Booth and now her eighth. While Calouche’s brainchild has become more balanced, more polished and less Bohemian, Booth Playhouse has become seedier and more déclassé. With all its former floor-level seating stripped away, replaced by drab moveable chairs on pitilessly exposed flooring, the Booth doesn’t boast enough style to be called Bohemian. These days, it’s the colorful Calouche costumes, scenery and aerial apparatuses onstage that push back against a powerful suspicion that you’re in a musty old union hall.
Did I miss all the wrongheaded demolition when I last entered the Booth to hear Matthew Bourne give a pre-Cinderella interview last January — or has all this foolhardiness transpired since then? I don’t know what they are thinking, and I couldn’t Google any info about current plans for the Booth.
Turn up some stage lights on the Booth’s crimson curtain and you do get a certain cirque vibe as Calouche makes her introductory remarks and plucks a couple of volunteer performers from the audience. That audience participation may be a new wrinkle, and I noticed upgrades in Jennifer O’Kelly’s sets and projections, photos by Peter Zay, and costumes by Betsey Blackmore, Kriss Yavalek and Calouche.
Calouche’s storyline remains pretty much as I remembered, with an accident-prone mid-20s Clara breaking her ankle at a holiday party. Rushed to an emergency room in the middle of Christmas Eve, Clara nods off into a snowy dreamworld very much like Charlotte Ballet’s pre-teen Clara does downstairs at the Belk. Only at the more adult Booth, we can ascribe Clara’s fantasy to inducements such as drugs, booze and anesthesia.
With all the assurance she could possibly need, Carol Quirós Otárola is in her first year as Clara, probably no longer in her mid-20s and definitely not accustomed to seeming awkward or accident-prone on stage. Early on, Otárola is gracefully paired with Joseph Nguyen as Beau, Clara’s white-clad cavalier. The party scene, now more upscale than I remember it, is livened by an acrobatic Mr.-and-Mrs.-Canes duet featuring Kaila Dockal and the ever-reliable Javier Gonzalez, now in his fifth season with the company.
Once Clara is booted in her post-op cast, we get a nice outbreak of imagery. Party guests become a somewhat bizarre nightmare throng, with a couple of the mob on stilts until we’re whisked into the eye-popping snow episodes. Otárola can now be all grace paired with Nguyen before the curtain comes down on all the leading dancers enjoying a snow shower.
Act 2 is more recognizably cirque with rings, silks and trapeze. At the same time, it is more recognizably Nutcracker with Candy Canes, Gingerbreads, Flowers, and — slithering to Tchaikovsky’s Arabian dance — Fish. Accenting the talents of Susannah Burke and Sarah Small on the rings as those slithery Fish, the mesmerizing Calouche choreography is obviously “in collaboration with the Dancers” as the program booklet states. The rapport between Conner Hall and Alan Malpass on trapeze as Mr. and Mrs. Flowers has an unmistakable circus glitter, yet we might also detect Calouche’s influence in how superbly their moves align with the “Waltz of the Flowers.” Same story when Otárola and Nguyen ascend, descend, or circle around each other on the suspended silks, so snowy and ethereal.
It’s at moments like this, however, when I still wish Clara’s Trip were more anti-Nutcracker than it is. When we’re hearing canned music in a trashed venue, the high-grade heroics of Calouche’s cirque artists don’t fully dispel the feeling that we’re watching a down-market version of the Charlotte Ballet extravaganza going on below with its million-dollar designs and its live Charlotte Symphony musicians. That’s where the prime Gingerbread and Candy Cane still reside.
So I suggest it again: shake up the customary Tchaikovsky soundtrack, even if it’s just with the Duke Ellington big-band arrangements of the score or the much-lauded piano adaptation by Stewart Goodyear released four years ago. As for all the Nutcracker score that precedes the breakout of its greatest hits, I’d suggest tossing away most of the party music altogether. Either break away from the ballet score with music you might actually hear at a contemporary Christmas party or slyly transfer some of the hits that have been axed from Act 2.
Calouche & Co. succeed with their audience involvement and in those ensemble moments where the party and Clara’s nightmare become truly wild. The aerial and cirque flights that take Nutcracker to new frontiers will also remain welcome. Certainly the wonders of Cirque du Soleil should play a leading role in Clara’s Trip, and when Zoe Flowers, Angela Kollmer and Charley Weaver make their splash as Monkeys on their triple-wide trapeze, we’re reminded that there’s a place for Disney preciousness on this snowy frontier.
As for the shambles that is now Booth Playhouse, stoned Baby Boomers might call that a trip. What a “trip” became back in the ‘60s could still add a worthwhile dimension to Clara’s adventures, loosening up Calouche’s characters here and there while making them more at home.
Happily, Calouche doesn’t simply vanish into the wings after her introductory emceeing. After primping for the party, she’ll pop up again at various points in the show, most prominently at the end of Act 1 in the snow sequence and in Act 2 in the role of Ballerina Ornament. She still blends in quite well with the newer talent, still can light up a stage, and she still inspires students and the city’s dance community. Quite a powerhouse, all in all.