Lawrence Toppman

‘Nutcracker’ airborne in novel ‘Clara’s Trip’

Alison Johnson as Clara and Javier Gonzalez as Beau star in “Clara’s Trip.”
Alison Johnson as Clara and Javier Gonzalez as Beau star in “Clara’s Trip.” Michael Church

You’re in for a whimsical experience when the title of a show is a pun. “Clara’s Trip” refers literally to a tumble that immobilizes her and figuratively to visions that float through her head after a doctor gives her a shot that would numb a rhino. And it refers to our entertaining voyage with her, much of it into the air space of Booth Playhouse.

I saw the final dress rehearsal for “Clara’s Trip: A Nutcracker Story,” because the two-day run is so short. That made two “Nutcrackers” in one day, but this and Charlotte Ballet’s offer completely different experiences.

The most obvious variation comes in aerial segments. The pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier (Calouche and Anthony Oliva) becomes a spectacular, slowly unfolding duet on one trapeze. Clara (Alison Johnson) gets a long meditative solo on the silks, like an angel testing her wings. There are no naughty mice, but three irrepressible fez-wearing monkeys (Alexis Browning, Zoe Flowers and Amy Gardiner-Parks) cut up on a tandem trapeze.

Yet even on the ground, this show steps in a different direction. Calouche designed the choreography along with her dancers, and it plays to their strengths: Johnson’s earthiness and energy, Oliva’s hoop-diving talents, other dancers’ comic gifts or gymnastic skills. Classical steps alternate with bits of modern dance and even some funky party moves. Javier Gonzalez, who plays Clara’s would-be suitor, supports his powerful co-star with a light, sure hand.

Charlotte Ballet has rightly been praised for the splendor of its sets and costumes, but “Clara’s Trip” proves you don’t need them to create a mood. A backdrop of red roses behind deep crimson silks creates a feeling of romance; Clara’s purity (she shies away even from having her hand kissed) is embodied by a soft white dress and white silks.

The show has a stop-and-start quality in the second half; the Booth stage doesn’t allow all the aerial apparatus to hang at once, and we wait for pieces to come in and out. Calouche gets around that sometimes by staging in front of the curtain or a scrim, though that doesn’t always solve the problem.

And in the end, neither show displaces the other; instead, they’re complementary. Both “Nutcracker” dreams – the big and small, the classical and the contemporary – deserve a spot in the lexicon of love.

‘Clara’s Trip: A Nutcracker Story’

When: 7 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Booth Playhouse, 130 N. Tryon St.

Running time: 100 minutes with one intermission.

Tickets: $25-$45.

Details: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.

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