Tag Archives: Javier Gonzalez

Still Tripping After All These Years

Review: Calouche & Co.’s Clara’s Trip

By Perry Tannenbaum

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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? Do not know what they are thinking, and I could not google any info about current plans for the Booth.

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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.

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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 Nguyen before the curtain comes down on all the leading dancers enjoying a snow shower.

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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.

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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 statewide dance community. Quite a powerhouse, all in all.

Roguish “Rouge” Keeps Its Freshness

Dance Review: CC&Co.’s Rouge

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Now in its fourth year, Rouge began as a slightly naughty variety show featuring Caroline Calouche & Co.‘s signature aerial choreography, with a naughty cabaret twist that meshed well with its October timeslot – and a late 9:30 pm performance that was a novelty for dance in Charlotte. Compared to the Nutcracker Rouge that I sampled last winter in an off-Broadway production, the first two CC&Co. editions of Rouge barely grazed the possibilities of risqué dance. Absent from the spectacles at Booth Playhouse were the profusion of pasties, satyrs, fauns, and cross-dressing men that I witnessed in Greenwich Village, all ganging up on an innocent virgin and serving as her initiation into the rites of eroticism. So if the Charlotte troupe had no intention of following a similar trail, it was prudent for the company to retreat from October, when steamier saturnalia might be expected, to a sunnier timeslot in August. Here the modest moves toward cabaret decadence and S&M stylings actually seemed more daring.

Yet the move to a balmier season didn’t absolve Calouche & Co. of the obligation to embrace cabaret naughtiness with gusto. If the opening tableau with three couples intertwining downstage and four females behind them straddling chairs was any indication of how the company would attack the can-can, then I could be grateful that I was spared from seeing a kickline that would have proven they can’t-can’t. Couples went through the motions of sensuous contact without either the heat or the enjoyment that would bring the choreography vividly to life, and the women on those chairs did little more than occupy them. A “Take It Easy” duet with Javier Gonzalez and Sarah Ritchy, some segments aerial and others on the floor, generated a little heat, but the closest we came to flame was Calouche’s “It Takes Two” aerial coupling with Anthony Oliva, introduced by hostess/songstress Rachael Houdek as the evening’s BDSM segment and boasting black costumes to match.

Set to some orgiastic guitar blues, something in this aerial choreography was definitely simmering.

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Hosting for the fourth time, Houdek seems to get what CC&Co. is about much better than she did in her first two years, and her singing has improved as much as her poise, most noticeably on “Creep,” the penultimate number on the Rouge 2016 program. Keeping the show fresh were five other guest performers, including the Von Howard Project from New York. Dancing the choreography of Christian von Howard, this trio of dancers – Breeanah Breeden, Jake Deibert, and Tracy Dunbar – were the gray antithesis of an orgiastic rouge spirit as they performed “Seeker”: eerily fluid, urban, dystopic, and occasionally extraterrestrial. Notwithstanding their discordant vibe, I wished Von Howard Project had offered us second and third helpings.

I can warily say the same about Atlanta-based Nicole Mermans, who delighted me midway during the second half of the evening with her “Tousled” on an aerial sling. Aerial pieces rarely strive for comedy, but this one had slapstick elements, set to a klezmer score. Hopefully, other pieces Mermans has devised would be equally unique, perhaps on an assortment of apparatuses. After watching aerial acts for a number of years, I’ve concluded that the number of moves available on each apparatus – particularly the aerial silks – is probably more limited than the number afforded by such gymnastic apparatuses as the rings, the pommel horse, or the balance beam. So are the risks after the performer has mastered each skill.

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So I was pleased that Rouge presented the wide variety of equipment that CC&Co. has accustomed its audience to, including Gwynne Flanagan from DC on trapeze and Molly Graves from Vermont on aerial rope. The only guest soloist who disappointed was Jen MacQueen from Atlanta, who only showed me moves on the cyr wheel that already I’d seen many, many times since the days that Cirque du Soleil first began touring. To her credit, Calouche has fortified her troupe to such an extent that the aforementioned members of the troupe – Gonzalez, Ritchy, and Oliva – aren’t alone in being able to perform to the level of the guest artists. Sarah Small performed a gorgeous aerial solo silhouetted behind a translucent disc, choreographed to an instrumental adaptation of Dvořák’s “Moon Song,” and though he wasn’t airborne at all, Jake StainbackSarah Small’s talents as an ecdysiast were singular nevertheless.

After the busy opening and the Von Howard Project spot, there were other segments featuring three or more performers, including a bouncy bungee trio (with some unseen complicity up in the fly loft) and an aerial finale on a massive twin-cube apparatus that could accommodate four performers simultaneously. My favorite was the semi-spontaneous segment that brought us to intermission, which began with Houdek picking out a conspicuously gifted member of the audience to bust out a few of his startling dance moves. Then members of the company invaded the audience, pulling some choice prospects onstage – well, they discreetly avoided old codgers like me, anyway. All of these recruits began to show their stuff to some very festive music. I not only noticed a non-musical actor among the recruits but also a few moves from the others that were raunchier than any of the rehearsed choreography. Rouge may not be particularly wicked, risqué, or even particularly French, but it remains an impressive show – and it attracts an impressive crowd.